Let me begin my response to Bob Dylan’s 1997 album, Time Out of Mind, by saying I have only listened to this album once through already, though I have attempted to do more than three times. So, my inability to sustain a complete session of listening is not because I haven’t tried, nor do I think it’s a fault of the album. In fact, it’s one thing I quite enjoy about Time Out of Mind: I can actively listen, or I can drift in and out. And it’s this quality of, for lack of a better term, in-between-ness that is the album’s strength.
What make that possible are a couple of things, but probably most specifically the length of the songs. All are long, and all are rambly and feature what you’d think of as a traditional arrangement of instruments for a Dylan album. (He has the ever-deft drummer Brian Blade of a few tracks too, which is a treat.) Each of these songs, whether use an electric guitar jump or the warm wash of an organ, also exploit and push Dylan’s voice to its expressive limits. It sounds like scraps of cloth stuck on barbed wire burr: prickly and warm, but authentic and present.
In this album we do get the quintessential Dylan silliness, the pinnacle being a discussion between the speaker and a woman over boiled eggs. And there is the simple “To Make You Feel My Love,” made famous by scads of popsters, (including the frightening Timothy B. Schmidt). Dylan’s treatment of the song is straight-ahead and plain, making the symmetry of its words something like a beautifully made finial, well turned and some how ordinary. But in most of the other songs, Dylan pulls from a repository of American blues archetypes and uses those templates to name-check so many places it’s hard to keep them straight. The “gay Paree” has been mentioned, but there’s Missouri and Baltimore, Dixie and the middle of nowhere, “inside a doorway” and heaven. He employs various chronic qualifiers—when, if, and yet.
The effect of these lyrics and the quality of his voice then reflects a sense of hauntedness instead of the punchy irony and biting sarcasm of the mid-sixties albums. What we get is a speaker caught somewhere between—he’s in a doorway, he’s “twenty miles outside of town,” some purgatorial waiting room, and waiting for dark to fall. This liminality is different from his position on an album like JWH. Though I think in the other kinds of albums Dylan can put on this bardic tone, being a seer and a doer and remaining Bob Dylan, here what we associate with the singer/artist icon persona gives way to a broader kind of figure—a bluesman, maybe or some kind of American version of a crusader. He’s on a path, always going somewhere, but not getting there yet. He has destinations and aspirations including winning back love, “going to the ends of the earth” for someone or “going down the road feeling bad” (a brilliant morsel that has to come from his relationship with the Dead) on his way to heaven. This album, then, tells the story of those acts not yet completed, those homes not yet found.
It is the perfect album to listen to when you’re halfway in the bag too, but it’s also the perfect album to listen to when the sky is gray and the air is fogged with drizzle, when it’s impossible to tell where one thing ends and the next begins, when the lines are blurred and you don’t know what will happen next.