Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Time Out of Mind

Four important things: every song on Time Out of Mind is written in the first person; the album is nearly 80 minutes long; the lyrics are obsessed with mortality, including two references to "flesh" and "eyes" melting off of the speaker's face; and finally, the album won a grammy for Album of the Year in 1997, signaling a critical and commercial comeback for Dylan.

Musically, the songs alternate between ballads and blues, literally from track to track. The opener, "Sick of Love," begins with the clatter of just played instruments humming before the organ pounds out the staccatoed opening chord. The entire album exudes a similar informal warmth, an indeterminate number of musicians gathered in a smoky room in a circle around their ringleader Dylan. The music is atmospheric, which is both good and bad. It is capably if restrainfully played but definitely subordinate to the songs' multiple verses, which is pleasant, if a bit wearisome because of the album's uniformity in structure and theme. The shuffle "Dirt Road Blues" is as close to an upbeat number as Dylan gets. There is certainly no four to the floor rock here or even something that picks up as much steam as "Maggie's Farm." Every song takes its time to develop; four guitars, two keyboards, and sometimes two drummers ("Can't Wait") pile on top of one another, but never in a distracting way. When Dylan bows out for an instrumental break on "Dirt Road Blues," for instance, there are enough distinct guitars playing that the song could conceivably break out into a Dixieland Hot Five imitation, the proverbial clarinets, trumpets, and trombones competing on top of each other with their own lead line. But here the guitars retain their holding pattern, and except for an occasional fill flourish, the precedent holds for the entire album.

The lack of an explosive-releasing solo compliments the lyrics about emotional sterility. The songs are all about love and how the speaker isn't getting any of it. This bothers him, because as his voice, music, and words indicate, time is running out. As the album's middle song puts it, "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." The album's final cut, a 47 hour behemoth, is named "Highlands", the place where the speaker's soul will be when he gets called home (companion piece to BoB's "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"?). The song contains the album's most playful lyrics (if you don't include Dylan's hilarious, grizzled reading of the line "And I've been to gay Paree"), with tangents about listening to Neil Young and reading Erica Jong. The song is a microcosm of the album, pleasant if a bit tiring around hour 15.

I had never heard this album until Sunday, and I've listened to it four times over the past couple of days. The individual songs I gravitate to are "Standing in the Doorway" and "Can't Wait," the former for its chord structure and the latter for its shuffling drums and minor key groove. The lyrics are all of a piece for me, and no song stands out as more exemplary than any other. I don't know if I'll listen to it any time soon. It's a mood album, best listened to 1) while alone by someone with a belly full of wine and ears full of a lover's rejecting words OR 2) as long playing background music at a dinner party.

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