Much has been written about this disc, and almost all the reviews and articles contain a phrase to the effect of "his best album since" so-and-so record. It's understandable why this talk is circling about; Bob Dylan has put out some mediocre albums in the last 20 years. Scratch that; he's put out some bad ones. And his concert appearances have included some pretty mediocre performances. Actually, some of his concerts have sucked. So when a genuinely good Dylan album or a good show comes along, folks get a little overexcited.
But for Time Out of Mind, the hype is justified and the comparisons are, if anything, unfair by virtue of their limitations, unfair because by saying this is the best album since (fill in the blank), you are putting a qualifier on this album's merit. This is not one of the best albums of Dylan's later years. This is one of Dylan's best albums, and it is also one of the best albums of 1997.
In tone and texture, it is a hybrid of Blonde on Blonde and Oh Mercy - the blues forms and sprightly feel of the early classic, the moody, blurry production (courtesy of Daniel Lanois) of the 1986 gem. But the two most encouraging things about the album for this reviewer are the sharp songwriting and the modern feel. Consider "Dirt Road Blues," the most steadfastly bluesy tune. On Dylan's last two records, he paid tribute to the old songs that influenced him, and he rendered them simply and traditionally. "Dirt Road Blues" is old blues through and through, but seen through a 1997-era lens. Is this strictly Lanois' contribution? Doesn't seem so. I won't try to explain it further, just buy this record and listen.
"Love Sick," with its Wurlitzer punches, and "Million Miles," with its Hammond organ stabs, put a quirky face on old song structures. Throughout the entire album, a platoon of guitars twist around tunes and thicken the mix - the effect one hears when Dylan is seen live. It's sloppy, messy, and finally beginning to make sense to Dylan fans who have been trying to decipher this musical direction for about ten years now. (We have sometimes Louisville resident Duke Robillard to thank for some of those six-string sounds.) Acoustic guitar, slide guitar, mando-guitar, and a slew of electric models add tastes here and there. The sad, pointed "Standing in the Doorway" rides on a Claptonesque guitar hook; "Million Miles" slinks along on a cat-like blues groove.
The lyrics throughout are remarkably dark, and anyone with an appreciation of black humor will love them dearly. Consider this excerpt from "Not Dark Yet," perhaps the best cut on the album: "I've been down on the bottom of a world full of lies/I ain't lookin' for nothin' in anyone's eyes/Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear/It's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there." In Dylan's words, he is repeatedly describing someone who has completely given up on the human race, and takes every failed love affair as further proof of humankind's corrupt heart. Love is his only salvation, and he ain't gettin' any on this blues record.
Dylan's voice, a persistent sticking point for some folks despite the man's near-deification in rock annals, is clearer and stronger than it has been in years. It's still nasal and scratchy and about as far from Rick Astley and Paula Abdul as Wonder bread is from a baguette. Get it over it, people. Listen to the lyrics, hear the emotion in this distinctive voice. Get hip to this artist before he stops making albums. Time Out of Mind is a good place to start, with six great songs and no bad songs. Well, okay. One bad song.
Only "Highlands," a 16-minute ramble in the tradition of "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" and "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," proves to be a total bust. The lyrics' depiction of the main character (Dylan's dark side?) is that of a dirty, down, depressed old man. It's funny the first time and too long on every subsequent listen.