Graded on a Curve:
Bob Dylan,
Time Out of Mind

Lots of supposedly sane folks shouted “Masterpiece!” when Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind came out in 1997; Elvis Costello, to pick a seemingly sober-minded celebrity name out of a hat, said, “I think it might be the best record he’s made.”

Hoo ha, said I. Sure, Time Out of Mind was a marked–no, make that very marked–improvement on the rather desultory couple of albums he’d released before it. So if you wanted to call it a resounding comeback, that was fine by me.

But masterpiece? Forget about it.

Well, time has softened me some. I still wouldn’t call Time Out of Mind a masterpiece–so far as I’m concerned Dylan stopped producing them in the mid-seventies, at latest. But it includes at least one song that stands with the very best of his work and a couple of others that are pretty damn good, and that’s not bad for an artist who was born before America entered WWII.

And the album as a whole is noteworthy for its unremittingly dark tone. Dylan sounds lost, desperate even; love makes him sick and has him all mixed up, things are disintegrating, and while it’s not dark yet, it’s getting there. This baby is one long twilight stroll through the graveyard of Dylan’s mind, and he’s not whistling; he taking a reckoning, and wondering whether the journey was worth the cost.

Time Out of Mind is an autumnal, and even elegiac, work; you can practically hear the shadows gathering. The dark and sublimely lovely “Not Dark Yet” is the album’s linchpin and one of the greatest songs Dylan will ever write. On it Dylan finally looks back, if only because there doesn’t seem much ahead; “Behind every beautiful thing,” he sings, “There’s been some kind of pain.” This is the sound of a man sinking beneath his burden of years, and you’re forced to wonder; does he fear the darkness, or look forward to it?

Daniel Lanois’ much-praised hand on production is most evident on stand-out track “Cold Irons Bound,” which surrounds Dylan with drum clamor, some great organ work by Augie Meyers of Doug Sahm fame, and lots of mean guitar licks. Dylan, his voice redolent with echo, sounds like the ghost in the machine, singing about how the winds of Chicago have torn him to shreds; “reality has too many heads,” he sings, and the cold irons he’s bound for sound a lot like eternity’s shackles.

“Standing in the Doorway” mates a startlingly lovely (and deceptively simple) melody to a complex meditation on the aching of a broken heart; Dylan doesn’t know if he’d kiss her or kill her if he saw her again, and “the ghost of our old love ain’t gone away.” The guitars are perfect and Augie Meyers again comes through big time, but it’s Dylan’s off-the-cuff phrasing that wins the day; halting and pensive, he sounds like he’s thinking up the words as he goes along. He sees “nothing to be gained by any explanation, and no words need to be said,” and if that ain’t the fatalism of romantic devastation I don’t know what is.

Toss in “Trying to Get to Heaven”–in which a broken-hearted Dylan tries to get to Heaven before they close the door–and you have my keepers, the ones I’ll always go back to. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the rest of them filler, although I will gladly go on record as saying that “Make You Feel My Love” is so Billy Joel hokey Billy Joel saw fit to cover it.

“Dirt Road Blues” is a likable throwaway that works in large part thanks to Meyers, but it’s hard to forget that his is the kind of simple blues Dylan used to fit up with startling and even hysterical lyrics. And the sad diminishment of his verbal gifts is even more evident on the interminable (it comes in at 16:31) “Highlands,” which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt Dylan the Poet ain’t what he used to be. The images in “Highlands” occasionally jump out at you, but they’re hit or miss at best. And at its center what we have is a case of low-grade misogyny; Dylan’s recounting of a run-in with a Boston waitress makes him sound less the prophet of yore than a bitter, sneering crank.

The walking blues “Love Sick” pivots on Meyers’ one-note keyboard playing and is self-explanatory; Dylan is sick of love, but he’s “in the thick of it” and hanging onto shadows. Lanois transforms “Million Miles” into a kind of Tom Waits set piece, and I’m less than enthralled; he accentuates the drumming and ups the atmospherics on “Can’t Wait” to slightly better effect, but Dylan’s jejune lyrics (another broken heart? Really?) don’t exactly win me over. The brutal fact is there was a time when Dylan was incapable of saying a single unstartling thing, and I’ve been mourning the loss of that Dylan for decades.

And that’s my chief problem with Time Out of Mind and every other LP Dylan has released since, well, John Wesley Harding really. Dylan the amazing wordslinger was usurped by Dylan the conveyor of simple sentiments, and that mad wellspring of dumbfounding verbiage and cryptic wisdom dried up forever. The world is full of people who don’t seem to lament his passing; I do.

My Dylan will always be the amphetamine-fueled Dylan of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and the hilarious Dylan who stopped making sense on The Basement Tapes long before David Byrne thought to do the same. I don’t hear a masterpiece when I listen to Time Out of Mind; I hear the work of an artist making do with whatever sadly diminished reservoirs of genius he still has left. But when push comes to shove, that’s what makes listening to Time Out of Mind so bittersweet, and even moving, experience.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • Jim Sullivan

    In short, you’re an idiot.

  • Stephen Badolato

    How does the vinyl sound?

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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