Monday, 10 December 2007

Top 100 Albums - #53: Time Out Of Mind (1997)

Bob Dylan's only entry comes at number 53, with Time Out Of Mind, widely considered to be the root of his modern-day comeback.The 1980s had not been kind for Bob Dylan. After converting to Christianity, which spawned the album Slow Train Coming (1979), he went through a 'gospel phase', releasing albums which won him audiences in the Bible Belt but few critical plaudits elsewhere. Throughout the rest of the decade his output oscillated from the acclaimed Infidels (1983) to the tiresome Knocked Out Loaded (1986). While the 1990s saw a continuation of Dylan's hectic touring schedule, it saw no new material, only endless compilations, a live album for MTV and a brace of albums containing covers of traditional roots and folk songs. This lack of new material led many to questions whether the sun had finally set on Dylan's career.

We begin with 'Love Sick', and from the start it is clear how much Dylan's voice has changed in thirty years. It's pretty ravaged, retaining its nasal character but coming across as much more weathered and its range reduced quite considerably. As indiscernable as the lyrics are becoming, the tone of the piece is more sceptical, as Dylan himself admitted: "the songs on Time Out of Mind... share a certain skepticism. They're more concerned with the dread realities of life than the bright and rosy idealism popular today."¹

Having started well, we come to 'Dirt Road Blues'. As the title suggests, this has a more transatlantic bluesy feel to it, but this is counterpointed by the strange use of an electronic organ. The sound is very distant and echoey - you feel like you are sitting in the back row of a concert where the microphones are all broken. That aside, it's a fairly run-of-the-mill 12-bar affair, and Dylan has written way too many of those in his time.

We get back on form with the next track, however. 'Standing In The Doorway' has better sound, better vocals and a better use of the organ. It's very relaxing, winding you down as you drive the long way home. Unlike earlier Dylan releases, perhaps going as far back as Highway 61 Revisited (1965), the vocals do not crowd out the (simple) isntrumental parts - the guitar and organ, not to mention the drums, are given plenty of room in this slow-tempoed number to expound their delights.

The album remains shaky, however, with 'Million Miles'. The production is again very distant; Daniel Lanois, who produced U2's The Joshua Tree (1987), demonstrates that he is at his best with rock, not folk. In fact the dodgy production prompted Dylan to self-produce all his subsequent efforts. The song itself suffers from the same calamaties as 'Dirt Road Blues': it's too formulaic, and it's too slow to produce the desire to get up and sway to a forgettable 3-minute song. Had this been quicker, it might have better.

'Tryin' To Get To Heaven' is quicker, more mellow and heaps better for it. Dylan's voice is strained to keep up, and on the higher registers he does sound a bit too much like Bluebottle from The Goon Show. Nevertheless, this is relatively catchy and has a nice refrain. Lines like When you think that you've lost everything/ You find out you can always lose a little more are the kind of lines that we have come to expect from Dylan - it's the sort that he moulded in his 1960s prime and which he has not crafted so well since 'Gotta Serve Somebody'.

''Til I Fell In Love With You' may be guilty of the echoey production of previous turkeys, but this actually works here. It makes the song more laid back, more American. It certainly makes a change for those of us who quickly tire of Dylan's shouty protest songs. The guitar sounds like it's being playing by a broken violin bow, which creates a wierd, distorted effect, juxtaposing the bluesy folk with electronic touches.

'Not Dark Yet' eclipses all that has gone before on this album. It's not so much that everything has been fixed; it's more that all the flaws - the production, the guitars, etc. - have been ironed out and turned on their heads to work. Critics have drawned comparisons between this and John Keats' 'Ode To A Nightingale'², and it's true since Dylan, in his hushed and raspy sort of way, expresses fortitude against death (ironically, since he nearly died after the album was released.). Like all Dylan classics, the lyrics become more memorable and warmer the more you listen to them and examine them. This is a classic song, which soothes you into a state of contentment as the sun goes down.

'Cold Irons Bound' has a harder, more metallic guitar as its anchor. The licks are more powerful, the drums are more powerful (if a little tinny), and Dylan growls the lyrics as best he can. Like a lot of songs on this album, this is quite a lot longer than it needs to be. However, the mood and tone of the sound is more than satisfactory in holding your interest. The only downer is that the same cannot be said for the lyrics. 'Make You Feel My Love' comes close to 'Not Dark Yet' in quality. At 3:32 it's the shortest track on the album, making it the most accessible; also, it's as heartfelt as the other tracks, and Dylan pushes his voice to convey this, even when he is clearly in pain from doing so.

The penultimate track, 'Can't Wait', falls into the same traps as 'Dirt Road Blues' and 'Million Miles' and as such falls short. It's repetitive, the production is too distant, it's Dylan in a holding pattern. Above all, it just isn't as compelling or as interesting as Dylan should be or has been on the rest of the album. We close with the mammoth 'Highlands'. This is the longest track Dylan has ever recorded, at a whopping 16:30 - so not one for the faint-hearted or the casual listener. That aside, giving the chance it's a reasonable song, a song which you think follows the straight blues formula and then subverts it just a little to make you keep listening, even with only one ear.

Time Out Of Mind is a problematic album, made all the moreso by the fact that Dylan himself has attacked it. The production is a big problem - the sound is mediocre at best, and even on the tracks where this is used to the song's advantage, it remains frustrated. Dylan's voice is still in good nick, but he chooses to sprawl out the lyrics in many slow moving songs, in contrast to Modern Times (2006), where everything is faster and tighter. The main problem with Time Out Of Mind is its pace - it's too slow, it's too long and it becomes tiresome. Nonetheless, it deserves a place in the chart because it is consistent - something which cannot be said of Dylan's career as a whole - and has a grace or fortitude to it where most of his contemporaries became weak. It should not be considered his best work, but it ranks alonside Achtung Baby as one of the best comebacks in music.

3.82 out of 5

¹ Bob Dylan, cited in 'Time out of Mind', Accessed on December 14 2007.

² Christopher Ricks, cited in ibid.

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