Time Out of Mind is generally considered to be Bob Dylan’s major comeback statement after a decade of what some might call stale material. “Love and Theft” by contrast is the masterpiece of latter-day Bob Dylan. On its own merits, it’s an album that most artist would kill to make. For Bob Dylan it stands up with his best albums and rightfully earns the title “his best since Blood on the Tracks“.
Dylan rightfully gave Daniel Lanois the boot producing the album himself under the moniker Jack Frost. As a result, “Love and Theft” is Dylan’s wildest, funniest set of songs, since The Basement Tapes. And like the Basement Tapes, “Love and Theft” uses Americana as a blue-print. And like those classic songs, Dylan ends up re-creating Americana (and myths of rural America) in his own image. “Mississippi” is the crown-achievement here (a minor quibble – but it stills bugs me that Sheryl Crow was the first person to introduce this song to the public). It’s the type of song where the more you listen, the more it confuses you and leaves you begging for more. Sometimes Dylan seems sarcastic when he sings “the only thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long”. Other times it’s seems like a lament. (Though for me the definitive version is the guitar only version found on Tell Tale Signs.)
“High Water (For Charley Patton)” continues a theme about floods that Dylan would also explore on Modern Times. Driven by a banjo, the songs and its lyrics sound like it could be included on The Harry Smith anthology. Again, the song gains more poignancy as natural disasters seems to engulf the midwest with increased frequency. Some of the lyrics are also taken from Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” – but for Dylan its not theft. (Perhaps that might be the reason why the album’s title is in quotes.) He’s aligning himself with his legends – and bringing these legends back to life. There’s no better homage than that. Charley Patton would be proud.
“Love and Theft” also finds Dylan telling jokes and being downright silly – there’s a whole song devoted to a conversation between Tweedle Dum & Tweedle Dee (though Dylan refers to them as “Tweedlee Dum and Tweedlee Dee”). Elsewhere, he tells corny jokes – “I’m sitting on my watch so I can be on time” and knock-knock jokes (“Po’Boy”).
“Love and Theft” doesn’t contain any major statements about the world, or ruminations on death. Instead, “Love and Theft” is the album where Bob Dylan truly merges everything that’s ever been on his mind – literature (there’s a reference a Othello), blues, jokes, Americana, and love. It might not be as mind-blowing or influential as Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, but you could also argue the case that it’s just as good.
Absolutely essential for any music fan.
Song for song, Time Out of Mind should probably be higher on this list. But it’s one of the few Dylan albums where the songs really come to live better in the live arrangements, mostly due to Daniel Lanois’ production. For some reason, Lanois decided that a swamp was a great place for a studio – hiding Dylan’s lyrics in a foggy murk.
I’ve always thought of Time Out of Mind as a sort of sonic version of The Grapes of Wrath, in its set-up. Steinbeck’s masterpiece contains several chapters revolving around turtle in the middle of the Joad’s plight. When I first read this, I wondered what the hell a turtle has to do with the plot. It seems like a throwaway, not pertaining to the plot, but contains many symbols directly related to the story arc. Similarly in Time Out of Mind, the blues ditties of “Million Miles”, and “Dirt Road Blues” and even “Cold Irons Bound” seem out of place with the weighty themes of the rest of the album, but upon further listenings these songs do in fact fit within the theme of the album, and ultimately make it a more rewarding experience.
It’s easy to assume that Time Out of Mind is Dylan’s view on mortality especially since not long after the album’s release he had a near fatal heart condition. Many of these songs do contain references to death and mortality, but visions of end times (whether it be his or the world’s) have always been a part of Dylan’s music.
Time Out of Mind was an important album for Dylan in many ways – it was his most critically acclaimed album in years, but more than that it also found him looking back to the pre rock and roll blues that inspired him, sounds he would explore for his next few albums. In a way, Time Out of Mind is a much freer and looser album than Dylan had produced in years – and the closing track harkens back to his Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde days with “Highlands” – a sprawling 16 minute song. It seems like the band is trying to keep up with Dylan.
Still, Time Out of Mind remains one of the few Dylan albums that I really wish was remastered or cleaned-up.
Twenty 22 years after its initial release, it’s hard view Oh Mercy as the “comeback” album that critics suggested upon its initial release. It’s certainly Dylan’s most consistent album of the 1980s, thanks in large part to the production and assistance of Daniel Lanois. Many of Dylan’s 80s albums have been viewed as misfires due to the exclusions of certain songs that would later appear on the various Bootleg Series. In retrospect, Oh Mercy suffers not from lack of quality songs (though why the hell “Series of Dreams” is missing is still baffling) but rather inferior versions of keys songs.
Lanois was wise to eschew the large production and big-band sound that had plagued many of Dylan’s 80s albums. Instead, Oh Mercy offers an atmospheric swamp-type vibe that never overshadows Dylan, though something that would happen on Time Out of Mind. Oh Mercy, is probably the first appearance of Dylan’s modern-day smokey, weary voice. It hasn’t fully descended into the voice of the man who wonders if he can get into heaven before the door closes, but it gives resonance to a song like “Most of the Time”. Dylan’s gravelly voice gives extra weight as he confesses that, “most of the time she ain’t even in my mind”. It’s a heartbreaking song, but his voice makes you believe he’s probably felt this way for over a decade. “I don’t even care if I never see her again,” He croons at the end. The listener feels bad, because he’s clearly lying, and he probably knows it too.
Elsewhere, Dylan gives an updated version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with the laundry list of broken things in “Everything Is Broken”. The lyrics aren’t shot out at 60mph, but like the iconic 1965 single, the lyrics by themselves don’t make much sense by themselves. However, its quite effective as Dylan runs through the gamut – “Broken bottles, broken plates, Broken switches, broken gates, Broken dishes, broken parts”. The closer, “Shooting Star” is probably my favorite song off the album, and I was first introduced to it on Bob Dylan Unplugged, which I only listened to once, and found myself absolutely loving this gorgeous song.
Oh Mercy’s acclaim has probably dimmed in years in part due to Dylan’s own renaissance in the late 90s and 2000s, but for mid-career Dylan it’s a definite high point.