Desolation was hardly a new subject for Bob Dylan when he released Time Out Of Mind twenty-five years ago. The topic was already there on his eponymous first album, way back in 1962, in his renditions of the traditionals “In My Time Of Dyin,’” “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “House of The Rising Sun”; and in his covers of Bukka White’s “Fixin’ To Die” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” and continued to hover over so much of his songwriting. The incendiary imagery he shared in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Desolation Row” and the self-lacerating lyrics he wrote for songs like “Dirge,” “Idiot Wind,” and “What Good Am I?” are just a few examples from a body of work infused with, and informed by, visions of solitary bleakness.·
But something new, and significant, infected the world of Time Out Of Mind — a shift from where Dylan had always been as a writer, and (as we now know) where he was going from here, and has been ever since. The album represents a fulcrum; it’s the one in Dylan’s vast, variegated catalog that I return to most frequently, something I’ve been meditating on while listening to Fragments: Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996-1997), the latest release in Dylan’s ongoing Bootleg Series.
Time Out of Mind was the first Dylan record to be released in my listening lifetime that had real teeth. Some of the music he recorded in the 1980s and early 90s, when I was coming of age, had things to admire about it, but for those of us too young to have been around for this artist’s heyday, it was hard to imagine what it must have felt like when Dylan dropped albums like Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and Blood On The Tracks. Oh Mercy, produced by Daniel Lanois in 1989, offered hints of the songwriter’s former glory, but embedded in its mood seemed to be a sense of withholding, as if the artist resented being cast as Lanois’s “monkey on a chain” (a phrase from the outtake “Dreamin’ Of You,” heard on this new release). “What was it you wanted?,” he’d asked on Oh Mercy. “Tell me again, I forgot.”
From the start of his career, Dylan was the guy with all the answers. His early albums are drenched in moral certainty, his classic 60s surrealist tapestries all about defining hipness for a certain set. Even Blood On The Tracks, from 1975, allowed him to play the role of the sexy, tragic lover, a Humphrey Bogart for the broken, post-Watergate era. And at the end of that decade, Dylan famously embraced fundamentalist Christianity; he was sure as hell about that, too.
But sometime in the 80s, that confidence became threadbare. The world saw right through it. When Dylan wrote, in Chronicles, that he was merely going through the motions by that point, he explained this away as having been abandoned by the muse. But listening to his albums from that period now, I think he just couldn’t figure out how to be Bob Dylan anymore and still get away with it. Middle-age had crept in, with its attendant doubts and anxieties, and his trying to position himself now as the coolest guy in the room had simply stopped working. It didn’t keep him from trying, which resulted in a series of posturing, hard-to-listen-to albums. Then, in the early 90s, it almost seemed as though Dylan threw in the towel with a pair of solo acoustic albums of old traditionals, blues, and folk music. He’d come full circle and, in a way, it seemed that maybe the Bob Dylan story, at least as a recording artist, might now be complete.
But in 1997, suddenly, Time Out Of Mind appeared. The album was a revelation, a return to form.. Dylan had reengaged, and with real conviction. For the faithful who’d never stopped believing that their hero would return, it was as though Brando had come back from The Island of Doctor Moreau and given us his Lear, or his James Tyrone.
What was shocking and revelatory about Time Out Of Mind was that, for the first time, Dylan was admitting he didn’t have it all figured out. He sounded fragile, humble, and defeated. This was not a Bob Dylan we’d heard before, and it served to ignite what has been the unexpected renaissance of his career (one that continues to this day). Even the photograph of him on the inside sleeve of the album showed a ghost-like figure, one that seemed to be disintegrating before our eyes.
In the lyrics of Time Out Of Mind, in almost every song, we hear variations of the same motifs and themes: the singer is walking, moving, thinking. He is alone, talking to himself “in an endless monologue” (as he says in the first take of “Highlands”). He has no answers anymore. In fact, he no longer even believes that there are answers, and the notion has decimated him.
Like the songs on Dylan’s 1960s-era albums, those on Time Out Of Mind are filled with what at times seem to be the cobbling together of random lines and couplets. But rather than this practice resulting in hallucinatory cleverness (“See the primitive wallflower freeze/When the jelly-faced women all sneeze”) the lyrics on here convey the kinds of feeling we all have when contemplating failure: “When you think you’ve lost everything/You find out you can always lose a little more,” Dylan admits. “It doesn’t matter where I go anymore,” he says,“ I just go.” His “sense of humanity has gone down the drain.” He’s listening for a sign but doesn’t “even hear the murmur of a prayer.” As the flesh is falling off his face, he sings “they tell me everything’s gonna be alright/But I don’t know what alright even means.”
The sound of the music is just right: it’s brooding, crepuscular, full of space and contemplation. Dylan had teamed up with Lanois again for this outing, and judging from the early versions of many of these songs ––"Standing in The Doorway,“ "Red River Shore,” even “Not Dark Yet” (which sounds, in its first take, as though Dylan is literally singing about the sun going down) — it’s easy to think that they may have been envisioning a swampy, rootsy, rock album. There are shuffles, in-the-pocket southern grooves, and even glimmers of swing, the likes of which would later be heard on Love and Theft and Modern Times, the Dylan-produced follow-ups to this album.
And indeed, on those and subsequent recordings in this century, Dylan’s spirit has lightened up a bit as he has seemed to come to embrace the nihilism we hear him confront on Time Out Of Mind. Since this album, a “nothing matters” mindset has pervaded his output, allowing him to engage with a new brand of confidence — one that has given way to things like doing commercials for Victoria’s Secret and Chrysler; making visual art that some have plausibly called blatant plagiarism; hawking his own brand of artisanal whiskies; and — most recently — to “signing” high-priced, limited editions of his new book using an autopen (something he has since apologized for). Rough And Rowdy Ways, Dylan’s most recent album to date, has plenty of darkness to go around, but it’s mostly still from that same detached remove he’s occupied ever since.
But as the songs here deepened and darkened and became Time Out Of Mind, we hear a Dylan who hadn’t crossed over yet, hadn’t yet arrived at “who cares?” On the album that these songs became, he does care, deeply, even in that moment in which he realizes it’s all for naught. Here, we listen to Dylan encountering the abyss, in a way that frightens and enfeebles him. And what’s so affecting and moving about it is that, maybe for the first time, we get to understand that he’s just like us.