Looking back on a legend reclaiming his legacy
The 1980s wasn’t a particularly great decade for the voice of the 1960s.
Saved and Shot of Love, released in 1980 and 1981 respectively, rounded out Bob Dylan’s “Christian trilogy,” but neither was as successful or as accessible (thanks in large part to Mark Knopfler’s guitar) as 1979’s Slow Train Coming. Even Rolling Stone, which often seems to bend over backwards to give Dylan the benefit of the doubt, could only muster two stars for Shot of Love.
Infidels followed in 1983 and Empire Burlesque in 1985, both uneven outings that caused fans and critics alike to wonder how much gas Dylan had left in his tank, and whether he could be relevant beyond his ‘60s icon status and landmark ‘70s albums like Blood on the Tracks and Desire.
The five-LP Biograph, also released in ’85, was a comprehensive blend of hits and rarities that seemed to want to emphasize Dylan’s place as an artist who should not be allowed to fade into the background. But Knocked Out Loaded in 1986 and Down in the Groove in 1988 seemed to argue strongly in favor of allowing him to fade.
Just how bad was the ‘80s for Dylan? When Discogs published a ranking of 47 of his albums from best to worst, six of his seven ‘80s studio albums are ranked at 35 or worse.
But then came 1989’s Oh Mercy. Produced by Daniel Lanois, who famously produced U2’s The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree (as well as albums by Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson and Brian Eno, among others), the record was hailed by many as a comeback – a comeback quickly deflated, though, by 1990’s dreadful Under the Red Sky. That was followed by two collections of traditional folk songs (Good as I Been to You in 1992 and World Gone Wrong in 1993) that did nothing for fans wanting to hear Dylan do new originals, not covers.
Dylan was clearly struggling. Greatest Hits Volume 3 and MTV Unplugged came along in 1994 and 1995 respectively, but fans wondered: What would be next? More catalog rehash? More covers? Was Oh Mercy a late-career anomaly?
From the vantage point of a quarter-century later, the answer is clearly: Oh Mercy was no anomaly, it was a hint of what was to come.
It’s easy to see Time Out of Mind as the record where Dylan rediscovered his muse and reclaimed his legacy. Rather than hastening his fade into the musical and cultural background, his second outing with Lanois as producer kicked off a string of strong albums (minus the Sinatra stuff) – Love and Theft, Modern Times, Together Through Life, Tempest and Rough and Rowdy Ways – that have been embraced by critics and fans alike as one of the greatest third acts in rock history.
A total of 15 songs were recorded for the album. Eleven made the final cut, and revisiting the tracks so many years later only underscores their excellence and why peers like Elvis Costello have said of Time Out of Mind that “it might be the best record he’s made.”
Take for example the opening cut, “Love Sick,” released as the album’s second single. Spare, smoky, bleak and haunting, it distills the loneliness of Frank Sinatra’s moodiest torch songs, blends it with the back-alley noir of Tom Waits and filters it all through Dylan’s own raspy voice and weary world-view. Don’t just listen to it, listen to it: It’s a masterpiece, and a hell of an album opener. No wonder USA Today ranked it so highly in its list of all 359 Dylan tunes: number 15, ahead of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (16), “Blowin’ In The Wind” (22) and “Positively 4th Street” (31).
Or consider the first single, “Not Dark Yet,” ranked number five (!) on that same USA Today survey. “Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain / Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain” Dylan sings. Move over, Professor Pangloss, this is evidently the worst of all possible worlds. “Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear / It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.” Yikes! Johnny Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” seems almost upbeat by comparison.
Time Out of Mind is the blues, Dylan style – a musical turducken of misery wrapped around depression and tucked inside a hefty serving of pain. Dylan is hitting rock-bottom, articulating a decaying cornucopia of deep feelings and fears about growing older and coming to terms with one’s own failures and losses – and, of course, one’s eventual inevitable mortality.
For me, the album’s highlight is the 16:31 closer, “Highlands,” the second-longest recorded song in Dylan’s catalog (“Murder Most Foul” on 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways beats it by just 25 seconds). It’s a sprawling tale that finds the singer, an artist, wandering the highlands in the springtime and making his way into a diner, where he’s the sole patron, challenged by the waitress about his understanding of women. They verbally spar a bit, and the singer leaves the restaurant the first chance he gets.
Heading back into the street, he sees a number of happy people with whom he’d trade places if he could. But he can’t – he’s too far inside his own head, talking to himself in monologue. The sun comes out, but it shines a light that’s meant not for him, but for the younger people in the park “drinkin’ and dancin’, wearin’ bright colored clothes.” As far as the singer’s concerned, “the party’s over and there’s less and less to say / I got new eyes, everything looks far away.”
VIDEO: Bob Dylan “Not Dark Yet”
But for all despair of the song, the track ends on a surprising note of optimism: The singer knows that the highlands – a place of “people in the park forgettin’ their troubles and woes” is where his heart is. He acknowledges that “there’s a way to get there and I’ll figure it out somehow / Well, I’m already there in my mind, and that’s good enough for now.”
And in that last line, like a tiny white dot in the black swirl of a yin/yang symbol, Dylan wraps his 30th studio record up in a neat bow: He’s where he wants to be in his mind, and all that *ahem* time out of mind spent in angst and anguish, well, what’s that really accomplishing, anyway?
It’s accomplished this much, at least: It’s helped deliver one of the very finest albums in Dylan’s catalog.