1) Bob Dylan is up there with Miles Davis in the pantheon of greatest musicians who ever lived. Both men were constant searchers and innovators who went through many different phases and personas during their careers, variously making masterpieces, let downs, and comebacks. Dylan in particular has been said to have made comebacks at least once a decade since the end of the 60s, so it seems only fitting my comeback review (after a month or so absence) would be of one of his comeback albums, 1997's Time Out Of Mind.
2) For all the fun you can have with Dylan's mid-60s electric/surreal music, there's a distinct lack of emotional resonance to much of it. As his discography is close to definitive in its moods and forms of expression, you can spend a lifetime discovering him and latching unto certain releases. In my younger days I used to bristle when others would posit Blood On The Tracks as their favorite Dylan album, since Highway 61 Revisited rang much truer to me even though I had no idea what most of it it meant. That was part of my enjoyment, however: the puzzle of it all, the need for interpretation, and Dylan's pervasive wit and urban cool. Now, I embrace his more human and openly emotional albums. Having been through the ringer of (to borrow a phrase) love and theft myself, Time Out Of Mind strikes me as up there with Blood On The Tracks in terms of its humanity and resonance. And excellence.
3) When a friend introduced me to Blood On The Tracks in college, it never occurred to me to wonder about its authenticity. I had no reason to suspect it wasn't taken straight from Dylan's heart until reading his Chronicles book, in which he reflects that an unspecified album (almost certainly Blood On The Tracks) wasn't autobiographical at all, but based on plays by Chekov. This upset me for awhile until I had been through a couple relationships and re-discovered the album, which finally resonated. You see, with Dylan, the point is never authenticity. The point is resonance. 'Simple Twist Of Fate' and 'Shelter From The Storm' give me goosebumps when I even glance at their titles because they resonate so perfectly with things I've thought or felt. Oddly, there has never been much debate as to the theme of Time Out Of Mind, even though it's every bit a relationship album as it is the death/mortality album everyone has always claimed it was. Listen again to 'Love Sick' or 'Cold Irons Bound.' These are not death or disease songs; they recall the uncertainty ofBlonde On Blonde, a record which, like Time Out Of Mind, encompasses a combination of new-love-devotionals and lost-love-laments.
4) Daniel Lanois's production on Time Out Of Mind doesn't sound quite like anything else I've heard. Dylan's voice is wisely kept front and center, with Lanois's subtle reverb/echo treatment lending it a spectral feel, as if Dylan has come back like a ghost a la Obi Wan Kenobi to dispense wisdom. However, there's an odd remove and cool-ness to the instruments that means this record isn't quite as intense as Blood On The Tracks or as alive as Love & Theft. Even the tracks that point to the modern roadhouse R&B/rock sound Dylan has adopted since 2001, most obviously 'Dirt Road Blues', sound a bit muffled and distant, as if someone is retroactively sanding off the distorted edges of the guitars and organs. It doesn't help that there were as many as ten people playing on some of the songs. As a result, 'Cold Irons Bound' paradoxically sounds muffled/distant and suffocating, as if it were recorded in someone's large-but-not-large-enough walk-in closet.
4a) A listen to 'Highlands' on headphones is revelatory. With an organ and electric guitar paired in each stereo channel, on top of the other instruments, this approach, and the track's length, recalls Miles Davis's Bitches Brew. But whereas Teo Marcero and Davis were able to wrangle all of these elements, Lanois and Dylan sound in over their heads. Since Brew was instrumental, it worked; since Time Out Of Mind is ostensibly a vocal focused album, the production and number of musicians can be distracting. Perhaps this explains why the instruments are so muffled and distant sounding, since the mixing of this record and the balancing of all these sounds must've been a nightmare. Also, did 'Highlands' really need to be 16 minutes long? No, but it's an indulgence that works. The flaws of Time Out Of Mind are the sort of flaws that serve to give a record character instead of rendering it less enjoyable. Mind you, 'Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands' and 'Desolation Row' didn't need to be as long as they were, either, but of course, they wouldn't have had nearly the impact they did if they were trimmed.
5) If New Morning is his almost-blindly-optimistic-about-a-new-love and charismatically off-the-cuff album (see 'If Dogs Run Free' and 'One More Weekend' for some of the funnest deep cuts in Dylan history)....if Blood On The Tracks is his newly-pessimistic-about-love and still-witty-but-bitter album ('You're A Big Girl Now' and especially 'Idiot Wind' are, respectively, as defeated and as pissed off as Dylan has ever sounded)....then Time Out Of Mind is like some unexpected sequel to both, written years later about the same characters (now older and changed) by the same person (also older and changed). There's a resignation and passivity to 'Can't Wait' that I find devastating because it hits close to home for me right now. It helps that the lyrics play like a sequel to both 'Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands' (in terms of 'waiting at someone's gate') and 'Tangled Up In Blue' (in the sense of a couple meeting and falling in love over and over).
2a) I suspect that most of the critics and people who read death and mortality in the lyrics of this album do so because it's what is most on their minds. As Dylan's discography encompasses almost the entirety of human experience, from love to loss to absurdity to apathy to nonsense to hope to lust to hatred to belief to fear to etc., it seems to me that his greatest and most lasting works encompass as many of these qualities as possible, and we, as listeners, determine what it all means. To put it another way, Dylan resonates with us because he gives us so much to work with. He openly resists interpretation and wishes the Dylanologists wouldn't waste their lives studying him, but he says these things because he wants people to discover what these songs mean to them, and not to solve the puzzle of what they meant to him when he wrote them. Is 'Not Dark Yet' about his death? I don't know, because to me, it's about my infrequent bouts with depression, pessimism, and apathy.
6) Time Out Of Mind sounds like how I always feel on Sunday nights, especially if I'm drunk and/or have recently broken up with someone.
7) Musically, Love & Theft and Modern Times are better albums. They sound muscular and confident even when they're displaying some vulnerability or sadness. Yet none of Dylan's recent albums ('recent' being a relative term) are as complete as Time Out Of Mind. The former albums are fun and enjoyable listens, but they won't grow on you and grow with you the way an album like this does.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5