It’s about Time: Time out of Mind

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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.

Capping the Damage: An Early 90s Retrospective of Dylan’s Career

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In the early 90’s, Bob Dylan was entering his third decade of studio albums. His early work revolutionized folk, and then rock. In the 70’s, with The Band, he fueled the Americana revival that thrives today. The 80’s, characterized by gospel and synthesizers and neon flourishes, saw a decline in his voice, his songwriting, and (let’s be honest) his ability to give a shit. But his first two albums of the 90’s–Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong–signaled Dylan getting back to the basics: folk tales, acoustic texturing, a biting, caustic tone.

Dylan was entering his 50’s, and he along with his colleagues and admirers felt compelled to put his career into perspective. They did so with two albums. The first, a compilation from the 30th Anniversary Celebration Concert Neil Young dubbed “Bobfest.” The second, an MTV Unplugged album that presented the artist in his most natural state. Career retrospectives, one gets the feeling these two albums serve to put context around the arc of Dylan’s fading career.

A powerhouse of musicians came out to celebrate Dylan’s 30th musical anniversary, and the album itself features a slew of now-classic performances. Eddie Veder belting out an acoustic “Masters of War”; Tracy Chapman shining like an updated Joan Baez on “The Times They Are a-Changin'”; Eric Clapton absolutely killing the blues on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”; Neil Young just getting nasty on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (“‘The joke was on me, there was no one even there to call my bluff / I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough”).

But it’s not just the covers of the old stuff that shines through on this concert recording. With dueling lead vocals ramping up a soulful “Emotionally Yours,” the O’Jays demonstrate the power some of Dylan’s 80’s material can have when placed in the right hands. Petty follows suit with a poignant “License to Kill.” And the Spotify version of this album contains a track missing from the double-CD I had as a teenager: a fabulously heartfelt “I Believe in You” by Sinead O’Connor.

The star power, the production value, the strength of the material serve as a reminder of and a testament to Dylan’s genius. That’s the only word that fits. Genius.

And yet, ironically, the weakest tracks are the ones Dylan performs in himself. But we’ve become accustomed to Dylan’s nasal wheeze by now. We’ve come to expect his messing with the phrasings and stresses to jar our expectations. “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” plays like some epically poetic sneeze. His stepping up for the last verse on “My Back Pages,” after Petty, Young, and Clapton all nailed their parts, evokes drifting from the highway onto the rattle strip, and makes one wonder what the Traveling Wilburys would’ve been with Young, or Clapton–or both–in Dylan’s place. Dylan’s highlight remains “Girl from the North Country,” befitting his success ratio of late: about 1 in 3.

IMG_4838The same ratio holds true for Bob Dylan Unplugged, a title which is a bit of a redundancy for an artist well at home behind an acoustic guitar. Two tracks here make their first album appearance: “John Brown,” which immediately ranks among Dylan’s finest folk war-protests, and “Dignity,” another commentary on humanity’s struggle to do what’s right, made upbeat by a capable backing band. On the other tracks, however, that band can’t hardly raise Dylan up to the level of his studio efforts. “Desolation Row” feels spare and forced, falling miles short of the haunting guitar jams from “Highway 61 Revisited.” The “Like a Rolling Stone” here, robbing folks of the “How does it feel!” peak of every chorus, is an embarrassment to those electric mid-sixties recording sessions. If nothing else, these songs remind us how great Dylan was back in 1965.

On the whole, these two albums could have easily recapped Dylan’s career and sent him loping into the folk-rock sunset. This moment in time certainly feels like a farewell tour, a move toward closure. Of course, we denizens of the future know better. But one could easily forgive a Dylan fan in 1995 for considering Dylan’s legendary creative fires burnt out, and for anticipating him relegated to performing sporadic and mediocre greatest hits tours from here out.

Do I get these albums? In both cases, the honor and respect for this folk-rock legend is palpable and powerful. Do I need the previous albums to get them? Absolutely–nowhere else does an education help more. Do I like them? The 30th Anniversary Concert remains imminently listenable; Unplugged imminently forgettable.

The Past is not Past: World Gone Wrong

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I spent the last week cycling 363 miles along the Erie Canalway bike trail. My buddy Todd and I hauled saddle bags and camping gear over trails paved and gravelled, through post-industrial communities of western and central New York, under interstates and along the Erie Canal, the Mohawk River, and finally, the Hudson. The Canal itself traces the roots of progress and expansion in America. First constructed in the early nineteenth century, the Canal immediately became an essential trading route between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes. The rise of the railroads over the following century spurred New York to widen the waterway in two installments. But finally, the interstate spelled its end. Now it’s three eras lay piecemeal through the countryside while the cities it stitches together struggle in our post-industrial economy.

Amid all that cycling, deep in the quiet woods, I played some music from my smart phone. The Band, Wilco, Counting Crows, and even one morning Bob Dylan’s World Gone Wrong. As with Good as I Been to You, here we have solo Dylan cataloging and preserving classic folk numbers. But right from the opening, title track, these songs take darker, deadlier turns.

“I got blood in my eyes for you baby,” Dylan sings with straightforward malice while his guitar strings rattle and hum. Two songs later, on “Delia,” the refrain, “All the friends I ever had are gone,” accompanies a first-person narrative from Delia’s killer’s point of view. The next track, “Stack a Lee,” pairs quick strumming with the story of Billie DeLyon, Stagger Lee, and the Stetson hat they wager in a card game–a story with as many versions and variations as there are trails through the woods. Dylan’s ends with Billie DeLyon haunting his killer, Stagger Lee, in Lee’s jail cell.

Each of these ten songs proceed with a gravity aided by the scratchy recording quality, the raggedness of Dylan’s voice, the fullness of his guitar playing, and the depth of time they occupy. Like the Erie Canal, World Gone Wrong carves a glimpse of a nation untouched by highways and airplanes, computers and televisions. It reminds us that the past is dark, muffled. When we rip it open, we find the hurts and horrors still ringing. We find humanity soaked in a solution of mortality.

This evocative album deserves a close listen in a quiet room. Dylan seems to be pivoting his persona to a world-weary soothsayer, an image aided by the black-suited, brim-hatted figure on the cover seated in some impressionistic cafe. Do I get this album? I get it in the shadowy corners of my soul. Do I need the previous albums to get it? Again, we get the impression here of a singer who never turned electric. Do I like it? At this style, Dylan is a master.

Good as I Been to You: a Roots Return

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It’s summer y’all. Highs in the 90s. Shorts and tank tops all about the city. Time to relax, to contemplate, to exercise. I’m reading another poem, headed back to the gym, working on myself in mind and body.

I wonder if Dylan conceived Good as I Been to You in the hot summer, too. Here is a return to his folk roots, an album that indulges and solidifies his fundamentals. Gone are the synths, the splashy drums, the wheezing overreaching lyrical and vocal efforts. Hardly a whiff of Christianity lingers in this album. It’s Dylan solo, seeming settled into his most natural state: acoustic guitar, harmonica, and a slew of folk traditionals like “Frankie and Albert” (with lyrical echoes of “Stagger Lee”), “Sitting on Top of the World,” and “Diamond Joe.”

One gets the sense Dylan didn’t need to brush up on these songs, didn’t need to rehearse. The mastery of the material with which he performs, the fullness of the arrangements and nuance of the phrasings, reminds us that Dylan plays folk standards like a fish swims in water. After the brutality of the recent albums, Good as I Been to You reminds us why Dylan rose to fame in the first place, before he went electric.

I wonder if his time with the Traveling Wilburys encouraged him to tap back into his roots. Petty obviously feels at home wailing the electric ballad; Lynne producing cascades of rock tones; Harrison playing the wry electric sage. Performing with this supergroup must’ve reminded Dylan of his own strengths. And here we have it–his voice a bit ragged and timeworn but fitting the aged essence of this material in a manner he could only imitate in his first, eponymous effort.

Do I get this album? I do get why, after so much apparent misery within the recording industry, Dylan took to his garage alone and sang what he knew best. Do I need the previous albums to get it? This one reaches back to Bob Dylan, Freewheelin’, The Times, and Another Side, as if we could leapfrog the electric decades of fame and failure between. Do I like it? Things are looking up.

The Struggling Critic: Traveling Wilburys Vol. III

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Did the Traveling Wilburys, during their recording sessions in the early 90s, contend with news of mass shootings and murderous cops, police assassinations and systemic racism? Was the 1992 Bush Sr.-Bill Clinton-Perot election as contentious and divisive as the one we currently face? Were societal ills and social injustices on the top of Dylan and Petty, Harrison and Lynn’s minds? Overwhelmingly, the tracks here–simple, relationship-themed, and inward-looking–would suggest not. At a time when the nation, immersed as it is in the violence through endless news cycles and social media feeds, is engaged again in debates of racism and gun ownership, the apoliticism of “Traveling Wilburys Vol. III” makes it a tough sell.

And yet, in these very pages I’ve faulted Dylan for being at times too polemic, for using his bully pulpit to promote a political agenda. And here I am wishing Vol. III (Vol. II never happened) contained that awareness of the larger struggles facing society. Just as the artist is helpless to create beyond the trappings of their place and time, their circumstances and beliefs, the critic, too, fails to approach their material without influence from the broader world. I can’t help import myself and my desires into my listening.

Do I “get” Vol. III? It’s a decent effort from a group laden with high expectations. Do I need the previous albums to get it? At this point I’m praising the generosity of the other members who took Dylan in at the nadir of his career. Do I like it? God, I’m ready for something better.

Under the Red Sky: Why, Oh Why?

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After the massacre in Orlando, the city where I spent the first 25 years of my life, where my mother still lives just two miles from the Pulse nightclub, I’ve had a difficult time jumping back into the Dylan hypothesis. I tried writing about Under the Red Sky during my week in Kansas City scoring AP exams. I tried in the hotel room, tried by the pool, but I couldn’t focus on the music. All I could do is listen to that first track, “Wiggle Wiggle,” and ask myself the same question I’d asked about the shooting, and about the bulk of those thousand essays I scored: Why? Just, Why?

“Wiggle wiggle wiggle like a gypsy queen,” this album begins. Dylan repeats the word “wiggle” ten times per verse; eight times per bridge. Why? I’ve listened to this album a half dozen times in false starts over the last few weeks (which must be some kind of record for this album), and it took several times hearing it before I realized “wiggle” is a euphemism. But still, I can’t get on board with this corny lead-off track.

The title track comes next, and that juvenile diction develops into nursery rhyme. “There was a little boy and there was a little girl,” Dylan begins, then bakes them in a pie and recruits the man in the moon to observe how “the river ran dry.” There’s nothing insightful or necessarily inventive about these references. These aren’t the grotesque psychoscapes of “Highway 61 Revisited,” but the musings of a man who has lost touch.

As the album unravels through tracks like the upbeat condemnation of contemporary society, “Unbelievable,” and the catchy, soulful “Handy Dandy,” the music emerges as the album’s best feature. The percussion is richly patterned. The keyboards and guitars and occasional accordion link together to form a rich acoustic nest. But Dylan’s suspect songwriting suggests he’s not ready yet to come home to the goodness yet.

Do I get this album? There’s some Christian tracks, a couple kiddie tracks, and some solid musicianship. Do I need the previous albums? There’s an upward trajectory here over the previous 15 years, though it’s been a while since Dylan blew me away. Do I like it? I like being back in the game. Onward!

Bouncing Back with Oh Mercy

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It’s a travel day. I’m flying to Kansas City, Missouri to score AP essays–topic: English Language–for seven straight days. The company flies in 1500-something English teachers, puts them up in hotels, feeds them three meals a day, and pays $1600+, plus reimbursement for food and transport on travel days. Without any one of these perks, the job wouldn’t be worth it. Pouring over those essays (last year I averaged 100 scored per day, and the guy across the table from me tackled at least five times that total) is miserable work. Just awful. My brain feels like soup at the end of each day. So, although I am looking forward to seeing a couple friends and scarfing down some Kansas City BBQ, this isn’t the most joyous travel day ever. Through security and the boarding, take off and cruising, Dylan’s Oh Mercy is helping me through.

The band on this album is very good, and the producer refrains from tainting the music with synths and splashy snares. Right from “Political World”‘s high-Western guitar loops and thick percussion, rolling together into motion like a freight train, this album contains more complex–and more engrossing–arrangements than those generic backdrops of the previous decade. In fact, we might have to dig all the way back to Planet Waves to find such quality musicianship, such a crisp, competent band. Dylan’s singing, too, seems to have improved. He takes his time here, hitting the notes on folksy melodies like “Where Teardrops Fall” and “Ring Them Bells.” On the sneering rock songs, too, such as “Everything Is Broken” and “What Was It You Wanted?,” he opts for the emotive impact of direct and simple delivery rather than pushing his voice behind its capabilities. Harmonizing and songwriting with the Traveling Wilburys has, I’m assuming, kicked Dylan back into gear.

The lyrics throughout Oh Mercy, too, are mostly thoughtful and challenging. “Everything’s Broken” runs the gamut between existential impermanence and the flimsiness of the tools in your junk drawer. “Broken dishes, broken pots / Streets are filled with broken hearts.” “Man in the Long Black Coat,” with its swampy acoustics, seems a counterpoint to the standard “Long Black Veil,” and further elaborates on the Dylan’s moral universe: “Preacher was talking from the sermon he gave / He said every man’s conscience is vile and depraved.” Coming from the preacher, this message rings true. But as is so often the case, when Dylan condemns behavior from a prescriptive, authorial voice, things get fishy. “Disease of Conceit” suffers for this folk wisdom: “Steps into your room eats into your soul / Over your senses you have no control / Ain’t nothing too discreet about the disease of conceit.” Sure, those in power can be dangerously conceited, but in and of itself, the conceit articulated here seems to oversimplify the root of human suffering. However, this accusation is acutely Dylanesque. Evil will overcome all assholes seeking power.

Do I get this album? It’s a fine bounce-back effort featuring a handful of memorable and important tracks. Do I need the previous albums? I’m still waiting for an effort equal to Blood on the Tracks, or even Bringing It All Back Home. Do I like it? We’re getting very close to great.