Playing God
Bob Dylan: Time Out Of Mind

time Out Of Mind is justly lauded as a completely unexpected return to greatness for Bob Dylan, appearing in 1997 out of seemingly nowhere. It's not a return to form but the creation of an entirely new form for the senior Dylan to create within, one that (with Daniel Lanois' help) sounds as if it's being transmitted from the Bar at the End of the World. There's a palpable feel of decay to much of the album, and not just in Dylan's vocals, although his success at using his newly ruined croon is second only to Leonard Cohen's. The music slowly tumbles and frays in intriguing directions and in its wake Dylan went on to a career renaissance that many of us had assumed was never going to come.

As important as Time Out Of Mind is though, both in terms of relevance and musical invention, one thing is generally glossed over in the reviews that greeted it with open arms: It is deadly boring. Eleven tracks in over seventy minutes is a tough row to hoe for the best, and Dylan didn't prove to be up to the task (as even he seems to have noticed; 2001's fine Love And Theft scales things back a bit). The best material on Time Out Of Mind aren't just the best songs Dylan has had for years, they rank up there with his classic material with their cavernous, apocalyptic power. Unfortunately, it's only by cutting out all of the lesser songs that you can really hear that. Trimmed down to a mere seven songs, the focus is placed where it should be, on the spare, measured performances and production and Dylan's most despairing set of lyrics.

On these songs loss of love is clearly bothering Dylan, and he identifies it with a creeping decay in the world; his delivery combined with the lyrics paints a picture of the bad side of town full of hurt and distress. He's no pleasant hippie troubadour; he's the guy on stage with a stain on his shirt from where his heart used to be and he'd as soon kill you as sing to you. A nearly complete misanthropy flows from these songs like black water, and the relentless negativity becomes one of the set's strongest attributes.

Side One
01. Love Sick (5:21)

My first introduction to the modern Dylan was with this song, and it's still one of his best. That crawling organ underpins a slow-motion repudiation of love, Dylan resorting to more and more juvenile claims (“I wish I'd never met you”) in an effort to get away from the central truth of the matter: he'd do anything to be with you. This is the sort of song that sounds callow from yet another pretty 20-something, but from Bob Dylan it sounds perilously final. He almost sounds omniscient on these songs, a broken Odin hanging from the tree of his own wisdom, and Lanois responds by making the spare guitar stabs and the organ sound as if they're coming from the other side of the world.

02. Dirt Road Blues (3:36)
Fittingly enough, the shortest and spriest song on either Time Out Of Mind is initially muted enough in its good-timey jangle that it could be coming from a radio at the other end of the bar. It was just after “Lovesick” on the original album and it belongs there – Dylan's sour whine drains all the energy out of the song but it hits like a punch anyways. This is an album of rejection, both of and by Dylan; but whereas his love is rejecting him (constantly, in these songs), he's rejecting the whole world. This is the song that sounds the most like Dylan's beloved blues forms, and its a throwback compared to the slow, quivering landscapes of much of the rest of the album. It's also hellaciously enjoyable, the equivalent here to “From A Buick 6” on Highway 61 Revisited. He's gonna walk on down that dirt road until everything becomes the same, which is about the cheeriest sentiment you'll find here.

03. Million Miles (5:52)
The organ from “Love Sick” is resurrected to vamp along to a spectacularly gloomy, slowly burning kiss off. Plenty was made of Dylan's “vampire cowboy” look at the 2000 Oscars, but its songs like this that make that description apt. Imagine stumbling into this bar late at night, finding these guys singing about unreachable women and the eventual heat death of the universe. As with most of the longer tracks here, the enervated repetition and funeral pace of “Million Miles” is both more compelling than you'd expect and key to establishing the album's misanthropic, despairing tone. He's done pleading for mercy as on the end of “Love Sick”; now he's just going to be sarcastic.

04. Cold Irons Bound (7:15)
“Cold Irons Bound” is technically more upbeat than “Million Miles”, but from the vaguely dub-esque opening until the fade seven minutes later, it's a grim ride of paranoia and persecution. Don't get me wrong, there is still humour and melody in these songs, as with all of Dylan's, but a song where the rousing refrain is “I'm twenty miles out of town, and cold irons bound” is never going to pass for cheerful. A woman is still at the centre, of course (“One look at you and I lose control”), but this is really all about the transport of the guitars and the drums and that damned organ again. By the time it ends you might think it was going to go on forever, as the villagers try to run Dylan out of town.

Side Two 05. Standing In The Doorway (7:43)
He comes back, of course, beaten half to death. If the first side of my Time Out Of Mind was filled with not-quite rock songs that still tried to muster up some kind of drive in the face of Dylan's fantastically dead performance, side two has our ballads. He's been nothing but angry so far, but on “Standing In The Doorway” that sweet pedal steel and a churchly organ accompany Dylan as he laments at great length the death of his happiness:
I'll eat when I'm hungry
Drink when I'm dry
And live my life on the square
And even if the flesh falls
Off of my face
I know someone will be there to care
It always means so much
Even the softest touch
I see nothing to be gained by any explanation
There's no words that need to be said
You left me standing in the doorway, crying
Blues wrapped around my head
As with “Cold Irons Bound” he uses the length of the song to slowly work it in, deepening the impact with each verse. It's a gorgeous sounding song, gentle in its sound but never soft, and its hard not to feel for the singer. He's been denying the hurt for as long as he can, but when it busts down the door it's stronger than ever.

06. Not Dark Yet (6:29)
Coming from the same calm place as “Standing In The Doorway”, “Not Dark Yet” is even less optimistic, once again connecting Dylan's romantic woes with the fate of the world:
Well my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writing what was in her mind
I just don't see why I should even care
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there
His voice sounds weirder here than on the rest of the album, slightly more adenoidal and bending in pitch at odd times, and it suits the song. Once again the drums thump slowly and the guitars and the organ gently hum in the background as Dylan sings bitterly, never admitting even the possibility of light. This isn't quite the end, but it might as well be; a fitting feel for a song, and an album that could be epitomized by the line “I ain't looking for nothing in anyone's eyes”. He's beyond angry snarls, and beyond feeling the hurt; he just wants out of here.

07. Things Have Changed (5:10)
I know Wonder Boys came out in 2000 and so “Things Have Changed” might not have been written by Time Out Of Mind's 1997 release date, but that's why this is called “Playing God”, not “Playing Record Company Executive”. The direly funny “Things Have Changed” has always sounded to me like a livelier brother to the rest of Time Out Of Mind, like Dylan's last acidic chuckle on the way out of the purgatory of the rest of these songs. All that pain and weariness and longing is gone: “I used to care, but things have changed”. “Don't get up gentlemen, I'm only passing through.” Dylan is leaving the Bar at the End of the World, blood on his teeth and a glint in the eye, and he snarls “If the Bible is right the world will explode” like he's just waiting for it. This whole album, at least this version of it, is like finding out your beloved grandfather is actually a cold killer, something that turns on you when you least expect it. Lean, free of sentimentality and as bleak as any other music you could stack it up against, this Time Out Of Mind is unsettlingly crucial not as the return of a “great artist” but on its own terms, a Red Headed Stranger where the stranger doesn't quite kill anyone and never gets redeemed. We may never see this Dylan again, but his power isn't diminishing with the years, as long as heart and bones are being broken.

By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2005-10-10
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