Yesterday I took the Greyhound–our neglected stepchild of long-distance transportation–from Burlington, VT back to Boston. The bus was packed, smelled of blue toilet water, and my seat neighbor and I chuckled about how our row rocked back and forth as much as a foot with every start and stop. It was a six-hour ride; I was stuck in a cramped, smelly limbo. The one redeeming aspect of the ride was that I had the perfect Dylan album for the occasion: Time Out of Mind.
We’ve come a long way since Dylan’s twenties and the furious start to his career, his throttled-back Americana early thirties, the arena rock that ushered in his forties. Even the utter artistic and commercial flops like Down in the Groove and Under the Red Sky of Dylan’s late forties seem erased from memory now as Dylan recasts his original material through that mystified, aging rambler intimated on World Gone Wrong.
Time Out of Mind is, to be sure, a comeback album, a return to form unseen since Blood on the Tracks. It constitutes another reinvention of our protean folk-rock hero. Right from the opening staccato organ bleats of “Lovesick,” soon paired with Dylan’s crisp, filtered rasp, it’s clear this album means to take its time layering keyboard riffs and guitar counterpoints. The second track, then–“Dirt Road Blues”–sets those instruments in motion as they twist and twang over a country beat. Again on track three, “Standing in the Doorway,” the arrangement glides the listener slowly into a meditation on the progress of love lost–“Yesterday everything was going too fast / Today it’s moving too slow”–while time, which has deepened over the decades, comes rife with forsaken love. These soundscapes, created by producer Daniel Lanois, along with these themes Dylan explores persist through these 11 tracks. The unity of sound and sense coheres the tracks with a strength essential to a complete, vital album. And that’s what Time Out of Mind is–a masterwork.
Time Out Mind also constitutes the first celebrated Dylan album release I was conscious of in the moment. I remember standing in the checkout line at Publix in 1997 with my father, born two years after Dylan, who was featured that day on a magazine cover by the register. “I heard Dylan’s latest album is really good,” Dad said, which was a surprise even to me, a 13 year old, because everybody—everybody!—knew Dylan’s beat years were behind him. But the critics agreed. Rolling Stones‘ four-star review called it “a more fully realized version of Oh Mercy,” also produced by Lanois. “The rumor is true,” wrote the A.V. Club: “Bob Dylan, an artist for whom many fans had simply given up hope, has made an excellent album.” For its part, Entertainment Weekly compared Time Out Mind to the Rolling Stones’ more “frantic” Bridges to Babylon, released at the same time (and, fun fact, launching the tour that served as my first concert (Santana opened)). Dylan’s effort, according to EW, proved Dylan “a man out of time, in self-imposed exile from rock trends, and all the wiser and stronger for keeping his distance from their energy-sapping fickleness.”
The consensus: by coming to terms with loss (of love, vivacity, and, perhaps, his audience) and mortality, Dylan had turned his career around. Hell, it won him the Grammy for Album of the Year.
“Million Miles” evokes a smoky jazz club where the instruments don’t as much play as lounge and moan. “Maybe in the next life I’ll be able to hear myself think,” Dylan grows before observing, “I’m trying to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you.” The conflict seems disembodied, removed from the speaker. Love unattainable is a constant, but one questions if a subject even exists behind the words, or if the album-wide laments serve as scaffolding for metaphysical contemplations. For example, “Trying to Get to Heaven” (“before they close the door”) expresses the futility of existence when non-existing could bring such bliss; yet our deliverance to that great hereafter is wholly beyond our control. The same idea applies to “Not Dark Yet,” which couples a dirge procession with lilting, redemptive guitar licks. “It’s not dark yet,” Dylan maintains, before dropping the tone, “but it’s getting there.” Beyond time, space collapses here too, as Dylan mutters, “There isn’t even room to be anywhere.” These two songs combine with “Standing in the Doorway” to form an exquisite triad of late-life ballads, slow and atmospheric, that recast the Dylan persona, typically caustic and accusatory, as a patient, toothless wanderer resigned to perplexity over the inscrutable trappings of our spectral world. There’s “nowhere left to turn”; “nothing left to burn.” The whole album feels theatrical, like an avante garde stage play. This is Godot in stereo, with Dylan the guitar-slinging tramp. His overriding could be summed as, Heartbroken again, but there’s still time–wait, still time? What is time, anyway, and after all I’ve been through, how could I possibly have more of it? Life is strange.
And so the album’s static mood, its overarching suspension of time and space and scarred hearts, had me forgetting about the time spent in that Greyhound seat–had me doubting the progress of time at all. “Cold Irons Bound,” which won a freaking Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, kept me a constant “twenty miles out of town.” A standard love ballad, “Make You Feel My Love,” proved again Dylan’s straight-up songwriting prowess. “Can’t Wait,” which declares, “I don’t know how much longer I can wait,” reminded me of my cabin fever, my anxiety to get off that bus. But the final track, the 16-minute “Highlands” featuring Dylan swirling between stage sets, including a restaurant in “Bostontown,” sounded utterly displaced, beyond the laws of spacetime altogether. All the while I thought of my father, who seemed to understand this stage of life where experiences circle so fast they leave their experiencers in a vacuum bemused.
Do I get “Time Out of Mind?” I get it, yeah, down deep. Do I need the previous albums to get it? To comprehend the velocity of this comeback, absolutely. Do I like it? More than that, I’ve internalized it–I’ve integrated it into the stasis of my life.