BOB DYLAN: TIME OUT OF MIND (1997)
1) Love Sick; 2) Dirt Road Blues; 3) Standing In The Doorway; 4) Million Miles; 5) Trying To Get To Heaven; 6) 'Til I Fell In Love With You; 7) Not Dark Yet; 8) Cold Irons Bound; 9) Make You Feel My Love; 10) Can't Wait; 11) Highlands.
The first thing you will probably notice about the album is that its last track goes on for 16 and a half minutes — longer than ʽSad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlandsʼ! — and, more than that, it is also called ʽHighlandsʼ, which is no more reminiscent of Robert Burns than echoing the aforementioned title. Then there is another thing worth noting — that the running length of the album is 72 minutes, which may, of course, simply be a usual tribute to the growing capacities of the CD era, but, for that matter, this was also the exact running length of Blonde On Blonde. Coincidence? Most likely so, but who's to tell there wasn't something going on a subconscious level?
It is irrelevant whether critical opinion «overrated» or «underrated» Time Out Of Mind when it came out, hailing the record as that particular miraculous offering from the old man that everybody was secretly hoping for, but nobody dared to predict in the open. What matters is that most people felt a strong tug, felt that the record was speaking to them in deep, mysterious ways that had, for a long time, seemed completely blocked off and forgotten. In a way, it is the Dylan of Blonde On Blonde speaking here. The real Dylan, some might say — the one who got frozen in time after the motorcycle accident and was replaced by the Dylan of The Basement Tapes and the Dylan of Blood On The Tracks, a first-class replacement but not exactly the same thing. Now, thirty years later, the Dylan of 1966 has been let out of the fridge — and no, the refrigeration process did not stop him from growing older, but it did freeze the evolution of talent and the personal history. No Rolling Thunder, no born-again Christianism, no Eighties' crisis.
What we have is a man who fell asleep thirty years ago, and is now waking up — in a cold, distant world that still feels like a dream (courtesy of Daniel Lanois' production devices). That is ʽLove Sickʼ, which, if anything, creates the atmosphere of a barren, collapsed environment, devoid of sentient life-forms: "I'm walking through the streets that are dead", backed with a drip-drip-dripping organ pattern (either Bob's own beating heart or the ominous tick of the last clock left alive on the planet) against which distant keyboards and slide guitars play a small army of haunting ghosts. Formally, the song is about a lost or unreachable love, but you'd never guess it without the lyrics — my first reaction would be «last survivor of a nuclear holocaust».
Although ʽLove Sickʼ does set the tone, and is probably the one song most responsible for the album's reputation as «Dylan's depressive masterpiece», Time Out Of Mind in general is not really about depression. There are some formally optimistic numbers here as well (particularly romantic ballads like ʽMake You Feel My Loveʼ), and the famous refrain of one of the album's key songs ("it's not dark yet, but it's getting there"), when you stop to think about it, is not really delivered with the kind of ominous gloom you'd expect to accompany such a phrase, but rather with an attitude of «wise amusement». The Dylan of Blonde On Blonde, frozen in time and now resuscitated to right all the wrongs, refuses to get too angry, too sad, or too smitten by any sort of emotions. He has learned to be able to acknowledge all the problems without getting too fussy, too whiny, or too opinionated about it.
Which is, ultimately, the reason for all the hoopla — with Time Out Of Mind crackling out of your speakers, you might feel, first time in years, that once again, Dylan has an edge over you. For a long time, his albums posed no questions, or if they did, the first one was «why exactly did I just waste time on this when I could rather have given another spin to Highway 61?» But now, all of a sudden, there is this blast of deep alien wisdom, unfathomable and perplexing. A put-on, perhaps? A front? These are questions that one can only answer for oneself. My answer is simple — the purpose of Dylan's entire life was to blur the difference between back and front, between put-ons and sincere confessions. But the vibe I get from this album is just exactly the kind of vibe I would expect from a smart, seen-it-all 57-year old dude with artistic talent and a keen sense of taste. Except that its particular effect is impossible to describe in words.
Of course, Lanois has to take a lot of credit for the album; he is the reason why all of the follow-ups never quite received the same amount of acclaim. Although his production stamp is easily recognizable on any album, he knows how to be versatile, and makes lots of small, but important shifts from the approach used on Oh Mercy in order to accommodate Bob's current needs and, most particularly, Bob's vocal shift — over the eight years that separate their two collaborations, that voice has lost the last traces of color, and is now reduced to a hoarse, sandpapered state that needs special treatment. Lanois provides that treatment with gusto, matching most of the instruments to the voice — yes, they too, particularly the harmonicas and the organs, sound like they've been sandpapered a-plenty.
Most importantly, though, is the ghostly aspect of the album. It does not really have any particularly memorable multi-note riffs or complex lead lines; it's more as if it was all constructed from a perfectly engineered set of musical moans, wails, creaks, squeaks, squawks, blimps, and blurts. Listen to ʽCan't Waitʼ, for instance, which basically sounds like a series of squeaky doors opening and closing, as if their hinges got plenty of time to rust up while Bob was still waiting. Or ʽMillion Milesʼ, where Jim Dickinson's pump organ is walking a shaky, repetitive, never-ending walk against the other instruments, echoing Bob's refrain of "I try to get closer, but I'm still a million miles from you" — sure you are, if the world is running away from under your feet in the guise of half a dozen minimalist guitar and keyboard parts, scattered around the speakers.
Many, if not most, of the songs «scrap themselves together» — beginning as a disjointed series of sonic happenings, eventually falling together in a surprisingly tightly coordinated groove. The groove is sometimes completely democratic, but the best songs are probably the ones where there is a dominating force — such as the deep, hopping bassline of ʽCold Irons Boundʼ, appearing on the horizon at 0:14 into the song and completely determining its grim, gruff face. Dylan won the Grammy for Best Vocal Performance here, but, frankly speaking, his vocals are on the level through the entire album — the award should have gone to Lanois for Best Cold Storm Front Arrangement, with the bass, snappy guitars, and snowy organ tugging away at the listener like a bunch of really pissed-off North winds.
The Blonde On Blonde connection, upon which I sort of hung up this review, does not entirely rest on imaginary symmetries — for instance, if you listen to ʽStanding In The Doorwayʼ closely enough, you are bound to hear echoes of ʽJust Like A Womanʼ in the guitar lines; and the organ parts on ʽTrying To Get To Heavenʼ (among others) are almost certainly played with Al Kooper's work on ʽOne Of Us Must Knowʼ (among others) well fixed in the mind of the current organ player. This, too, is taken care of by Lanois, who does his best to reward us with nostalgic memories of the «thin wild mercury sound» from time to time — not always, so as not to turn the whole deal into unabashed nostalgia, but frequently enough to keep our minds well set on the past.
ʽHighlandsʼ, of course, is really no ʽLowlandsʼ, nor does it even try to, apart from the superficial analogies. It's really more of a somber Dire Straits-style bluesy number (you could very easily visualize it as sung and played by Knopfler), and when taken on its own, it has no reason whatsoever to drag on for sixteen minutes. In fact, you won't really lose track of the integrity of Time Out Of Mind if you turn it off at any time — be it three, six, or ten minutes into the song; lyrics excluded, that is, since the whole piece is supposed to be Bob's artistic testament — "my heart's in the highlands" may echo Scottish sentiments, but the «highlands» that Bob is really talking about actually happen to be much higher than the peak of Ben Nevis. So it's a very important song, even if you are not swayed over with its monotonous, almost robotic groove — but at this point, Bob has no interest in swaying, converting, or mesmerizing you. He is being completely adequate to himself, and even the odd story about his encounter with a restaurant waitress that he throws in the middle comes across as perfectly natural, nothing to be amazed or irritated at. The man is really quite at peace with himself, despite all the seeming tension and worry.
Without going into boring discussions on whether the album really stands up to Bob's highest standards, is as good as or better than his «classic» stuff, etc., etc., let's just say that this is the perfect album for a 57-year old veteran with a lengthy career behind his back. When Dylan just started out, in the early 1960s, he was already fascinated by those strange blues tunes about death, redemption, and the Heavenly way — which he understood and interpreted from his perspective of a smart, reclusive, rebellious youngster. Thirty-five years later, that reclusiveness and rebelliousness have been burned down, charred and transformed into clouds of black smoke, but the smoke is completely organic and natural.
Dylan himself has denied that the album was, in any way, connected to his near-death experience later that year, as he was struggling with histoplasmosis (the album's release was delayed until September, by which time Bob had recuperated) — which makes this an eerie coincidence, since Time Out Of Mind really does sound a lot like a typical album for somebody whose intention it is to make final peace with the world, and prepare himself for a better place somewhere out there. Regardless of the circumstances, though, it does belong in the small collection of all terminally ill people — what with that soothing mix of doom, gloom, tranquility, and self-assuredness. No matter how many spooky ghosts Mr. Lanois has amassed for the occasion, Dylan's weather-proof singing brushes them all aside — he ain't afraid of no squeaky doors opening up into the void, and sets a terrific example for us all here, especially as we hit our later years (I'm just hoping that, thirty years from now, Adele will cover ʽLove Sickʼ or ʽTrying To Get To Heavenʼ with the same emotional precision she demonstrated when covering ʽMake You Feel My Loveʼ, the only song on here equally suitable for young and old mindset alike). And — thumbs up, of course.
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