For some reason, these In Rotation entries have all focused on albums made in the past 15-20 years so far. I think after finishing my albums list, I wanted to pay more attention to the modern; it’s just where my head’s at right now. I really thought I would have profiled Led Zeppelin II or Green River by now, but I just keep putting it off. For some reason, those records just don’t excite me right now. And then there’s Bob Dylan’s long, winding, intricate discography. At the time I made my list, I was only intimately familiar with Highway 61, so that’s why it was the only Dylan entry. I ended up sloughing off a ton of his others into the honorable mentions bucket because while I liked many of his others, they weren’t my favorites. When I did my Highway 61 entry I actually had to listen to those other Dylan albums to refresh my memory on some of them, and I was particularly struck by 1997’s Time Out of Mind, his Grammy-winning comeback album.
It sounds much, much different from his early, bare-bones acoustic work, with dark, richly textured atmospherics. Dylan worked with Daniel Lanois — producer of a number of U2 albums like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby — to achieve this sound, though he would later characterize it as “off.” I can see where he’s coming from, considering none of his other albums sound like this one, but I actually love how this album sounds. As far as songwriters go, Dylan’s the best. I mean, he’s Shakespeare. But Dylan’s work, like Shakespeare’s, is almost completely unadorned. Dylan’s main body of work — we’re talking ’62-’76 — all pretty much sounds the same. It’s just instruments and vocals cut to tape. Similarly, Shakespeare’s plays were just that: plays. Actors would perform them on a stage, and that was it.
Well, imagine if Shakespeare actually lived another 400 years and got to write screenplays, writing drama for movies and TV. How exciting would that be? Well, that’s basically what happens here with Bob Dylan on Time Out of Mind. I haven’t even tried to listen to Dylan’s ’80s work, because the production methods in those days were awful and it’s probably not a coincidence that he didn’t make any lasting classics during that decade. But fast-forward to the mid-’90s, when everyone had their heads on straight as far as production was concerned, and Dylan produced a comeback classic that utilizes modern recording technology. On a related note, I stumbled upon an interesting quote of his on the Time Out of Mind Wikipedia article and thought I’d re-post it:
[My old] records were made a long time ago, and you know, truthfully, records that were made in that day and age all were good. They all had some magic to them because the technology didn’t go beyond what the artist was doing. It was a lot easier to get excellence back in those days on a record than it is now…..The high priority is technology now. It’s not the artist or the art. It’s the technology that is coming through.
I think he’s right on the money. The recording process itself didn’t used to be a difference-maker in terms of whether a song would turn out right. That concept didn’t even exist, the process was so simple. Now the number of decisions that must be made regarding an album or song’s sound are literally infinite. It’s one of the reasons why there’s less great music now. Writing the song used to be the thing. The reason why everyone was covering so many songs on such a constant basis in the ’50s and ’60s was because that’s how you would get different sounds. The studio didn’t used to be an instrument, so the only way for something to sound different was for someone else to come in and play/sing it. During the ’70s, making the album became the thing. Still, there were limitations to what was sonically possible in the studio, so the material had to be really good. And this was before the digital era, so back then everyone had to be able to sing and play; there was no pitch correction software.
And now, of course, everyone toils away in the studio for months and sometimes even years like in the case of Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy, which reportedly cost upwards of $13 million. Pop culture moves faster now than ever, and yet musicians take longer than ever to finish new material. There are just more decisions to be made and more things to take into account when making an album now. Bob Dylan, of course, has lived through it all. And though 2001’s Love and Theft and 2006’s Modern Times are more celebrated works now, I like Time Out of Mind the best. Dylan is appropriately sprawling here, but Lanois’ production gives these tunes a tightly clenched feel, so in many ways this is the most dramatic album in his catalog.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, Dylan has since expressed reservations about Time Out of Mind‘s sound, and he has opted to produce his subsequent albums himself under the pseudonym Jack Frost. And that’s too bad, since I love the sound of Time Out of Mind, but on the other hand, it makes this album special, which I love. I first heard “Cold Irons Bound” during the unconventional 2007 Dylan biopic I’m Not There, and I remember thinking, “This is Bob Dylan?” The characteristics of it were like nothing I had ever heard from him: the moody atmosphere, the trippy bass riff, the ragged guitars, that raw and vulnerable voice. And the lyrics were so harsh, in this kind of self-deprecating way that’s utterly humorless. And yet there’s something life-affirming about the song at the same time, in a weird way. Pain and anguish permeate every inch of Dylan’s performances on Time Out of Mind, accentuated by razor-sharp guitar rock and haunting psychedelia.
More recently, I was listening to Adele’s debut album 19 and came across her cover of “Make You Feel My Love.” I couldn’t believe how beautiful that song was, and Dylan’s original is pretty astonishing, too. It’s hard to believe it was written in 1997, since it’s quite timeless. I think it took me so long to get into Time Out of Mind because it’s actually a double album. At least, it was conceived as one — the vinyl release contained two discs, the CD just one. It clocks in at over 70 minutes, which is much longer than a traditional album in the CD era. At any rate, this is an unwieldy beast, and it took me many, many listens to learn all the ins and outs. But trust me on this: every single one of these songs is a stunner, worthy of listen after listen. The jagged production has a lot of layers to it, and this is the master at the top of his game. What’s not to love?