We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
By the time 1997 rolled around, Bob Dylan had gone seven full years without releasing any original material, and it appeared as though he had permanently put aside the creation of new compositions in favor of year-round touring and performing.Though 1989’s Oh Mercy was hailed as a comeback, its 1990 follow-up, Under The Red Sky, was widely panned, and Dylan sunk further still with a disastrous tour in 1991.Less attentive observers might have written off Dylan completely by 1992, but those dedicated fans that continued to attend live performances may have noticed a startling turnaround in concert quality by 1993, as Dylan found a strong new voice that reflected both a wiser maturity and much-improved tonal command.After the release of two albums of blues and folk covers in 92 and 93, Dylan continued to hone his live performances to an even greater degree, giving hard-rocking shows in 1995 that continued to redefine and renew songs from throughout his vast catalogue.A breathtaking performance of Restless Farewell for Frank Sinatra’s 80th birthday celebration in the waning days of 1995 led some perceptive commentators to suspect that Dylan was only beginning to rediscover his powers.
For most critics, however, the arrival of Time Out Of Mind in September 1997 came as a complete surprise.That the album was excellent, rivaling his best work from the past 20 years, was even more of a shock to the public, its high quality further magnified by the reputation of the author and the seemingly permanent break he had taken from songwriting.The album captured a Grammy award and landed Dylan on the cover of Time magazine, but the music itself was anything but typical pop-scene fare.In fact, Time Out Of Mind was perhaps the gloomiest, most pessimistic take on life and the human experience that Dylan had ever put together, backed by exquisite and immensely atmospheric arrangements courtesy of producer Daniel Lanois.The songs themselves are bleak and haunting, always returning to the tried and true blues themes of lost loves, feelings of loneliness and isolation from society, and the inevitability of death and loss.As he had been doing for decades, Dylan often appropriated classic blues phrases in their entirety, perhaps tweaking them here or there, but leaving the most memorable imagery intact.Lines like “Going to walk down that dirt road ‘til my eyes begin to bleed,” and “turn your lamp down low” are taken almost word for word from old blues standards, and their very familiarity, their innate, almost subconscious power, lends the songs a powerful foundation in a century-old musical tradition.
It is worth noting that the songs derive as much power from the arrangements and Dylan’s impassioned vocal delivery as from the (relatively simple) lyrics themselves, unlike many previous efforts where lyrical brilliance outshone what were often slapdash studio recordings.Dylan himself admitted as much in 1998 interview, conceding that “many of my records are more or less blueprints for the songs,” while “this time, I wanted the real thing … they’re written in stone when they’re done right.”
What then is “the real thing” for Dylan?We can't read Dylan's mind, of course, but for the listener the answer seems to be a magical, indescribable blend of blues, folk, gospel and other influences, all mixed together into a musical stew that borrows generously from hallowed musicians and songwriters of the past to create compositions that are neither conscious throwbacks nor attempts to create a new contemporary sound, but rather an attempt to distill the very essence of the American musical tradition.On Dirt Road Blues, (the only song off the album that has never been played in concert to my knowledge, perhaps due to the impossibility of replicating the sound live), the lyrics are practically superfluous, as Dylan’s voice becomes a reverb-heavy instrument above the paradoxically earthy and ethereal sounds of a twangy blues guitar, organ, and bass.
Love Sick has perhaps among the simplest, most straightforward lyrics of any Dylan composition, yet the melody and anguished vocals create new layers of meaning on their own."I'm sick of love," Dylan intones, "and I'm in the thick of it."The lyrics ponder an emotional tug-of-war Dylan is experiencing, though he does not draw a clear distinction between his love for a particular woman and the concept of love in general.Tryin' To Get To Heaven is a song that is again neither past nor present, one that brings out Dylan's current state of mind through liberal borrowing of the blues "language." We have "high muddy water," "lonesome valleys," "gamblers and midnight ramblers" and the like mixed in among despondent confessions of fading memories and listless wandering, all conveyed through a wonderfully pained vocal that seems to savor every syllable and twist of phrase. Dylan is doing more than just singing here: this is no flawless, polished product of studio recording expertise, but a brutally honest expose of inner feeling conveyed through a set of vocal cords every bit as sad and world-weary as the old blues masters Dylan had indolized since his earliest years as a musician.
Cold Irons Bound brings the tempo up a bit (in fact the song often rocks very hard in live shows), but the theme is much the same here. Despite his apparent material satisfaction - the "whiskey's in the jar, and the money's in the bank," after all - Dylan still finds himself friendless and cast out from society in what seems a hopeless search for someone, or something perhaps, that pervades his consciousness. Is it a particular woman? A source of artistic inspiration long lost? The ambiguity of the lyrics makes it difficult to say. Can't Wait delves into a similar theme, with Dylan again waiting for this mystical figure to return and set things to rights for him. The song itself seems to emerge out of thin air, as a wandering bass line and thumping drums somehow coalesce into an unsteady melody, saved only when Dylan’s gravelly vocal intrudes to pull the whole thing together.Not Dark Yet is the most beautiful song on the album, a drawn-out masterpiece that shows Dylan assessing his long, accomplished past while peering somewhat uneasily into an ever-shrinking future.
One track on the album stands out from all the rest, however: the epic Highlands, a 17-minute song that draws inspiration from Scottish ballads and Charley Patton guitar work to create a bizarre, surreal world of metaphors and real-life anecdotes, of deadly seriousness and lighthearted humor.Through all 20 verses, the one theme that predominates is that of a man who can find no rest or sense of belonging to this world - a mid-life crisis of sorts - who instead keeps his eyes fixed on the Highlands, not to be understood as a physical location so much as a state of mind where the singer can at last find peace, comfort and a sense of meaning.Critics can debate whether 17 minutes was a necessary length for this or in fact for any song, but at the very least one can admit that the song ends the album on what is comparatively a positive note.Despite all the fear of impending death, despite being chained in irons and run out from society, Dylan at least has his heart where he wants it to be, even if he may never make it there in person.