Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Time Out of Mind

Time Out of Mind (1997)

All it takes to have a best-selling album in the United States is to have a near brush with death. Shortly before the release of Time Out of Mind, Dylan suffered from pericarditis, a deadly inflammation of the sack around the heart, and, to paraphrase him, he nearly went to see Elvis. Early in his career, Dylan said one of the things he admired about folk music – real folk music – was the way that it accepted death as a natural fact. Death is all over As Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, so it is no surprise that when he got back to writing again, having undergone his plan to reconnect with his love of music by revisiting the folk songs he fell in love with when he was young, his writing dealt more frankly with death than it had in a long time. It doesn’t matter that he wrote the songs and finished recorded them well before his pericarditis started, the intersection of the illness with the album’s release caused people to see it as about Dylan’s fear of his own impending death, which is kind of counter to what the album should get across, which is that death is an inescapable fact, so there’s no use in fearing it. Just as Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series, which had been brilliant since its inception – failed to generate many sales until he was on his deathbed, the public hadn’t flocked to the last several Dylan records until they thought they might lose him. The sales and accolades poured in. The album received first critical acclaim and then popular approval. It was Dylan’s first top ten album since 1979 and signaled a major return. Many see this as his best album since the mid-70s. I disagree with that assessment, but it is still a damn good album, though it could have been better.

Where the album fails is in its pacing. Dylan likes to alternate between slow and fast tempos, rockers and ballads, even when making an acoustic album – and this was certainly not acoustic. Lanois use of layering and compression, though, gave most of the album a dull sheen. Dylan has complained extensively about this, saying the album didn’t come out the way he wanted it to. In particular, Dylan thought “Cold Irons Bound,” which won one of the album’s three Grammy awards for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance (the other two were for Album of the Year and Best Contemporary Folk Album), had been ruined. Some of the best songs that Dylan wrote for the album were kept off, ostensibly because he didn’t like Lanois’ production. This was certainly the case with “Mississippi,” a song he would give to Sheryl Crow and which would also be a hit for the Dixie Chicks before he released his own version on “Love & Theft,” which Lanois wanted to make sound, according to Dylan, “sexy, sexy, and more sexy” by adding in polyrhythmic drumming. Three different versions of the song from these sessions were eventually released on Tell Tale Signs, a collection of outtakes recorded between 1989 and 2006. Other outtakes included “Marchin’ To the City,” a far superior version of what would later become “Til I Fell In Love With You.” “Dreamin’ of You” had lyrics which made it into several other songs, but had a uniquely jazzy sound to it that would have added to the album’s monotony. Finally, “Red River Shore” would have been the best song on the album had it been included. The song that gets the most attention from this album, “Not Dark Yet,” is one of the weaker tracks in my opinion, even though it is weak on what is overall a very solid album.

Best song: Standing In the Doorway – There are a lot of good songs on this album, and I almost went with “Highlands,” which was originally 35 minutes before Dylan and Lanois edited it down to the 17 minutes it takes up on the album. This song is also epic, though; a portrait of heartache that references several different old blues songs before ending with the great image of “the blues wrapped around my head.”

Worst song: Make You Feel My Love – This was a close one with “’Til I Fell In Love With You,” but “Make You Feel My Love” wins for two reasons – it is definitely the most lightweight song on Time Out of Mind (though musically more interesting than its competition), and because I have a story I want to tell about it. I think it was in an airport – I really can’t remember. Somewhere I met someone who knew Garth Brooks manager and I got this story from him. Given the nature of it, it may be apocryphal, but it has the ring of Dylan truth. Garth Brooks had been approached to record a song for the soundtrack of the Sandra Bullock/Harry Connick Jr. romance Hope Floats. He didn’t have any ideas floating around, so he asked his manager if he thought Dylan would have anything. His manager told him that Dylan hadn’t written anything in years. Garth asked if he wouldn’t just call him up and check, so the manager did. Dylan was about to head out for a tour, but said that he did have something. He was leaving I assume from his house in Malibu and was about to fly out of LAX. Dylan said that if the manager could pick Garth up and meet him at the Burger King by the airport early the next morning (around 4 am), he’d teach him the song before he left. The story ended with the guy saying “can you imagine sitting there chomping on your Whopper when you notice Bob Dylan is schooling Garth Brooks at the next table over?!?” Either way, I heard Dylan later said he regretting letting Brooks have the song. More likely, Don Was, the soundtrack’s producer, got the song based on knowing Dylan through Under the Red Sky or Sheryl Crow, who early in her career was a backup singer for Dylan and who covered the then-unreleased “Mississippi” around the same time gave Brooks the hook up, as she also appears on the Hope Floats soundtrack.

Best outtake: Red River Shore – One of the all-time great Dylan songs, and clearly his best work in the 1990s. While the old folk songs influence is stamped all over Time Out of Mind, this song could have been one of the old folk songs. A strange tale about Jesus and a ghost the boy loved, if the boy was ever alive to begin with. It seems innocuous enough as it starts out, but as the tale develops, it becomes clear one of the two principals is dead, and different parts suggest it may be both the narrator’s beloved and the narrator himself.

Notable live version: Tryin’ To Get To Heaven – On the album, this song was a clear standout. It is one of the stronger tracks, and the lyrics – which recall reconstruction, the Missiouri Compromise, and the sweep of American experience, all in the face of dealing with the stringency of one’s own more turptitude – pop more on the album version than they do here. The album is mostly easy, open chords with a few tricks and licks. In 2000, Dylan completely rewrote it using a bunch of jazz chords and a completely different melody. The result is utterly gorgeous.

Rhymes: thunder/plunder (“Love Sick”); guitar/cigar (“Standing In the Doorway”); disintegrate/wait (“Can’t Wait”); wrong/Erica Jong; dog monologue (4-5 from “Highlands”)

Images: “my brain is so wired and the clouds are weeping” (“Love Sick”); “ice water in my veins” (“Standing In the Doorway”); “every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb” (“Not Dark Yet”); “clouds of blood” (“Cold Irons Bound”); “honeysuckle bloomin’ in the wildwood air, bluebells blazing where the Aberdeen waters flow” (“Highlands”)

Axioms: “Gonna find me a janitor to sweep me off my feet” (“Million Miles”); “I don’t know what alright even means;” “I’ve been to Sugartown and I shook the sugar down” (2-3 from “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”); “reality has always had too many heads” (“Cold Irons Bound”); “I got new eyes; everything looks far away” (“Highlands”)

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