“Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear,” Bob Dylan laments in his ragged, distinct voice on “Not Dark Yet,” the centerpiece of Time Out of Mind, 20 years old today (Sept. 30). “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there…”
By the early 1990s, the sun appeared to be setting on Dylan’s illustrious music career. His legendary run of iconic albums wrapped nearly two decades ago. From wunderkind folknik to rock genius/jokerman, brokenhearted songsmith to road-hound country rocker, Dylan had worn many hats. He was also still recovering from his fan-alienating Born Again Christian period, which produced three albums and some of the most controversial concerts of his career. He toured with The Grateful Dead, and played a washed-up rock star in the film Hearts on Fire. He hadn’t released an album of truly transcendent material in years. Typically prolific, Dylan now seemed to be uninspired and stagnant, releasing two collections of folk covers and filming an MTV Unplugged packed only with his older hits. He continued his never-ending world tour in what began to look more and more like an escape route.
Then, after a seven-year break between original releases, Time Out of Mind arrived.
It’s a monumental album in Dylan’s career, which means it’s the one of the best of the best of the best. It’s Dylan’s answer to, “Does he have anything left?” It’s a tour-de-force, an aged musical genius toiling with love, hate and his finite existence in this world. It’s been a long road, and he sounds like a wounded bluesman man singing from first-hand experience.
Part of the magic here is in its simultaneously atmospheric and claustrophobic sound, thanks to producer Daniel Lanois. He’d worked on Dylan’s 1989 LP Oh Mercy, but here he applies a similar sound he brought to Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball and U2’s The Joshua Tree. The feel is like stepping into a dark Highway 66 roadhouse, the sound dripping like thick, wet oil paint on the walls.
The sessions began at Miami’s Criteria Studios in January ‘97, after Dylan spent a period writing while snowed in at his Minnesota ranch. The sessions have been described as loose, with up to 12 players bustling about, including Jim Keltner, Dylan’s tour drummer from 1979 to ‘81, and hired hands like Nashville guitarist Bob Britt, blues axeman Duke Robillard, Tex-Mex organist Augie Meyers and Memphis pianist Jim Dickinson. But there was tension, too—and Dylan, accustomed to fast, on-to-the-next-one sessions, has been critical of the album’s recording process and sound since, calling it overly technological and laborious. But it doesn’t detract from its genius—that’s what sets Time Out of Mind apart. It would go on to win three Grammys, including Album of the Year in 1998.
The album opens with pulsing Farfisa organ on “Love Sick,” Dylan groaning, “I’m sick of love. I’m love sick.” Guitars recoil like a Slinky as he croaks, “My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired…” On slo-mo country rocker “Million Miles,” he croons, “I try to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you…” He’s still thinking of her on the groovin’ “Cold Irons Bound”: “Now I’m all used up and I feel so turned-around… my love for her is taking such a long time to die,” he spits. “Some things last longer than you think they will / Some kind of things you can never kill.” He surrenders to his enduring flame on “Make You Feel My Love”: “When evening shatters and the stars appear / And there’s no one there to dry your tears / I could hold you for a million years.” But on the LP’s epic 16-minute closer, he’s sentimental to a bygone time: “Feel like a prisoner in a world of mystery / I wish someone’d come and push back the clock for me.” He’s wondering if his great loves are all gone.
On “Standing in the Doorway,” Dylan wonders how he’d react in a run-in with his former lover, over a tangle of twinkling slide guitars: “I don’t know if I saw you, if I’d kiss you or kill you.” He’s vulnerable: “When you think that you lost everything / You find out you can always lose a little more / I’m just going down the road feeling bad / Trying to get to heaven before they close the door.”
“Not Dark Yet,” the LP’s first single, is its dark heart. The organ and guitar wash over like the rising tide, as Dylan sings like in a prayer. “I feel like my soul turned into steel / I still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal,” he confesses. “I was born here and I’ll die here, against my will / I know it looks like I’m movin’ but I’m standin’ still / It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there.”
The morose lyrics would prove a harbinger; in the summer of ’97, just a month or so before the album’s release, he would suffer from the heart condition pericarditis brought about by histoplasmosis, a fungal infection that can prove fatal. He would spend weeks in the hospital, canceling numerous tour dates.
Time Out of Mind is an anomaly in Dylan’s deep catalog. He was 56 years old, gazing wistfully back on a long, successful career, chock with creative epiphanies and great loves, and wondering if That Dylan Magic™ was gone. Maybe it was. Maybe Dylan’s acceptance of that helped him write Time Out of Mind, because this is not the confident, Divine Young Dylan of yore. He’s world weary, beaten but not defeated—and that’s what makes it so crushing. It wasn’t dark just yet.