Over at the Colour blog last month, Matt was ruminating about Blood On The Tracks, Bob Dylan’s 1975 masterpiece of relationship breakdown and betrayal. He was thinking of it as a great winter album, and this is undoubtedly true – it is frosty and bitter, brilliantly monochrome. But Dylan out-wintered himself on 1997’s Time Out Of Mind, which appropriately enough was the first entry in his great late trilogy.
In a New York Times interview to mark the album’s release, Dylan said that, “A lot of the songs were written after the sun went down.” Time Out Of Mind is very much an album of the dark, dealing with death but more broadly with the diminution of power, the dimming of the light. Dylan had once boasted, on 1988’s Silvio, that, “I can tell you fancy, I can tell you plain”; in the 1963 song When The Ship Comes In, he shouts from the bow that his enemies’ days are numbered, and they are drowned in the tide (like Phaoroah’s tribe) by the sheer force of his rhetoric.
Yet Time Out Of Mind inaugurated a new Dylan, one less certain of his own powers, and indeed of the possibility of transformation in general. This lack of faith in the new is principally evidenced through the extensive use of quotation across the late trilogy, culminating in 2006’s Modern Times, in which whole tracts of old and forgotten songs are resurrected to address the new age (though controversially the CD declares “all songs written by Bob Dylan”). The middle – and pivotal – work in the trilogy, “Love and Theft”‘, puts this process front and centre in its very title (it is the only album in the canon to benefit from quotation marks).
On that album’s Mississippi, Dylan sings, ‘All my powers of expression, and thoughts so sublime, could never do you justice, in reason or rhyme.’ Indeed, at times the new Dylan falls back on cliché to express the inexpressible: Spirit on the Water, from Modern Times, is a seven minute epic of aphorism, piling old saw upon old saw until their cumulative weight adds up to something like the truth cliché once represented (“from East to West, ever since the world began”); Dylan “can’t believe these things would ever fade from your mind.” But this is hardly the figure of the 1960s, or even the 1970s, he of brash overconfidence and iconoclastic verve. This is another Dylan, looking for truth with the help of others; there’s a new humility in him.
The reasons for this – or the crises which led to it – are explored on Time Out Of Mind, and this bleak honesty is what makes it so thoroughly a winter album – it not just evokes coldness, but has let it sink into its bones. During its centrepiece, the 16-minute ramble across the peaks of Dylan’s psyche which is the song Highlands, the singer notices young couples relaxing in a park: “Well, I’d trade places with any of them / In a minute, if I could,” he confides, admitting to the disappointment, the limitations, of old age. And on Not Dark Yet, one of Dylan’s very bleakest songs, we hear that “my sense of humanity has gone down the drain.” Dylan’s alienation is total, and he is left tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door.
Michael Gray, in his superlative and idiosyncratic ‘Bob Dylan Encyclopedia’, argues that all this darkness, this angsty confessional, isn’t really the stuff of Dylan: that, in its use of the folk idiom and country blues, “Love and Theft”, the album which followed it in 2001, is the more important, the more Dylanesque, record. This is persuasive, and certainly Time Out Of Mind marks something of a break with Dylans past and future. But in its sense of alienation, it develops a new relationship with time. Dylan is no longer at its forward edge. As Eyolf Østrem has beautifully put it, Highlands (and, I’d argue, the album as a whole) “succeeds, not by trying to stop [time] in the tracks or hold it back, but by realizing that time goes on regardless of everything, and by tapping into its flow and disregarding it, instead of fighting it.” Contra Gray, Time Out Mind (and now we see that title as a typically Dylanesque pun) paves the way for the playful orneriness of “Love and Theft”: Dylan is only able to start fully inhabiting this old man persona because, in 1997, he put his hands up and surrendered on the path to decrepitude.
This persistence of vision is evidenced by Make You Feel My Love, a minor song from Time Out of Mind which nevertheless performs exactly the same trick as a song separated from it by more than a decade, Spirit on the Water. As I’ve suggested, that song uses the power of cliché, of the cumulative power of our stock phrases. Consider the first two verses of Make You Feel My Love:
When the rain
Is blowing in your face
And the whole world
Is on your case
I could offer you
A warm embrace
To make you feel my love
When the evening shadows
And the stars appear
And there is no one there
To dry your tears
I could hold you
For a million years
To make you feel my love
The rain falls, the whole world’s against you, it’s dark outside and there are tears on your face. But it’s OK, because Bob loves you. This is surely a first stab at raiding the wordhoard: here Dylan reclaims our most basic idioms, in an admission that we can learn from the past rather than constantly overturn it – and in doing so as he explicity admits to his diminishing powers.
It is important to note, though, how Dylan’s delivery serves this purpose. A banality spoken blandly will merely bore – invention is the stuff of profundity. In times past electrifying images poured out of Dylan at a rate he called ‘vomitific’. The guilty undertaker sighed, the lonesome organ grinder cried; the silver saxophones urged refusal. The new Dylan, back in time to a self that existed before Blonde on Blonde (he was so much older then, and so much younger now), is interested more in recontextualising older images, more venerable words. It is the way he sings them which invests them with something beyond their everyday familiarity.
Christopher Ricks has called it Dylan’s “exquisite precision of voice,” and this is a good way of thinking about the ways in which Dylan chooses to sing a line: what he is looking for is the means in melody and rhythm better to communicate what he has written. This duality is the source of his late songs’ substance: his voice is shot, perhaps, but its subtelty is greater than ever. (We might compare Dylan’s vocal performance on Make You Feel My Love with that of teen soulster Adele’s on her debut album ’19’; creamy and technically accomplished, it fails somhow to find this space in the inherited phrase which lies apart from the platitude.)
“My cruel weapons have been put on the shelf,” Dylan sings on Workingman’s Blues #2, the most important song from Modern Times. But this isn’t the whole story, we know, since Dylan’s late period is actually a veritable treasure trove of wisdom and comment: far from hanging up the burden of his pen, Dylan has merely employed it in new ways. And on “Love and Theft”, we get closer to the truth: “Summer days, summer nights are gone – I know a place where there’s still somethin’ going on.” If Time Out of Mind was the start of Bob Dylan’s winter, he soon found a new way to keep warm.