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.
Both Time Out of Mind and “Love and Theft” found Bob Dylan looking to the American musical past in a way that he hadn’t in years. Time Out of Mind was mostly blues-based, and “Love and Theft” covered blues and Americana. Modern Times covers that seem territory, but also includes swing and jazz influences. This era must have been on Dylan’s mind. The album covers includes a fuzzy version picture of a 1930s car surrounded by city lights, and the album title alludes to Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film, Modern Times.
And like its two predecessors, Modern Times finds Dylan in familiar territory, but he’s not coasting. “Thunder on the Mountain” moves along with a rockabilly bounce as Dylan tells the listener that Alicia Keys has been on his mind. “When the Deal Goes Down” might be Dylan at his jazziest. It’s a sound that could easily turn into something cheesy in the hands of some-one like Rod Stewart, but Dylan gets inside the song and uses a business exchange, or card game depending on your view, as a metaphor for death. “I owe my heart to you, and that’s saying it true,” He croons. “I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.”
And in case you think that Dylan has forgotten the social issues of his youth he’s laments the state of the working man in “Working Man Blues #2”. It’s the type of song that one can imagine that men would sing on trains during the Depression as they made their way from town to town in search of work. “The Levee’s Gonna Break” is based on the blues standard “When the Levee Breaks” made famous by Led Zeppelin. While Zeppelin’s version was furious, Dylan’s version is more sorrowful, and gains more resonance since the song was recorded less than a year after Hurricane Katrina. It’s hard not to picture the devastation of New Orleans when Dylan observes, “some people on the road carrying everything they own”.
Like many classic Dylan albums, Modern Times ends with an epic that only Dylan could conceive. “Ain’t Talkin” one of the darkest and spookiest songs Dylan has recorded. Over a sparse guitar Dylan walks through “the mystic garden” and admits that he’ll “burn that bridge before you can cross”. “Ain’t Talkin” comes off as an updated version of “Talkin’ World War III Blues” where the narrator wakes up in a post-apocalyptic world. In that song, Dylan seems shocked by what he sees. In “Ain’t Talkin” though, Dylan isn’t shocked, but just bitter. He says that he’s still yearning, but then he wants you out of his miserable brain.
Ultimately, Modern Times uses the past to shine light on contemporary subjects. In it’s own way, it’s Dylan’s most political album (without being explicitly political) since the protest days. It’s not as direct, and he’s still got a lot on his mind – we just have to listen.
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.
Bob Dylan’s Together Though Life turns 1 today, and it’s still constantly on my playlist. Ever since Time Out of Mind in 1997, Dylan has been on a creative high. Time Out of Mind was followed by the what -really-might-be-his-best-since-Blood-on-The-Tracks – Love & Theft. 2006’s Modern Times was pretty good too, but a kind of somber and weighty affair. On the other hand, Together Though Life is perhaps the first time since Blonde on Blonde where Dylan lets loose and sounds like he was making music just for the hell of it and actually enjoying himself in the process. There’s a twisted chuckle at the end of “My Wife’s Hometown”, and an cry out of “woo!” in the middle of “It’s All Good”.
Together Through Life is probably the closest studio incarnation to Dylan’s never-ending-tour where every night is a surprise and melodies and songs change constantly – but the music is always rooted in blues and pre-rock and roll music. Dylan even takes the melody of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love To You” for the hilarious “My Wife’s Hometown”. Dylan being Dylan though his wife’s hometown is hell and she’s got “stuff more potent than a gypsy curse”. “Forgetful Heart” might be his best ballad in years. “I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain,” Dylan sings in the voice that has now become more of a growl . “The door has closed forevermore. If indeed there ever was a door.” This is the song of a lonely man, but even his old age he still has the bite of his younger years.
Rolling Stone recently reported that 16 unreleased Dylan songs will appear on the soundtrack to My Own Love Song that served as the genesis for Together Through Life. Director Olivier Dahan asked Dylan to contribute “Life Is Hard” for the movie, but Dylan kept on writing and compiled what would eventually become Together Through Life. While I will surely get the soundtrack, I’m also hoping that this year we’ll get the Bootleg Series 9. If not, as Dylan sings on Together Through Life – “you know what they say man. It’s all good.”
Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind
Unlike a lot of other latter-day Dylan albums (mainly Love and Theft and Modern Times) this one never really hit me until recently. Many of my favorite songs have superior takes found on Tell-Tale Signs. Even though the album was written before Dylan’s 97 heart problem, it’s hard not to contextualize as such – a majority of the songs are depressing. Death surrounds the album just as Daniel Lanois’ production surrounds Dylan’s songs with a murky, muddy sound. Dylan seems kind of beaten on Time Out Of Mind but this is what gives songs like “Trying to Get to Heaven” and “Not Dark Yet” their power. It’s no surprise his next album Love and Theft would be looser and funnier than anything he put out in years.
Lou Reed – Transformer
It’s hard to not to prefer the Velvet Underground to Lou Reed’s solo work. While I do love the Velvet Underground, I find myself listening to Transformer more than VU. Maybe because Transformer’s performances are lively and well, fun. (Not so much the lyrics though. “Perfect Day” is about coming down from heroin, and “Satellite of Love” is a brutal song.) Sometimes it’s easy to accuse Lou Reed of career self-destruction, but Transformer is where he created the perfect blend of weird and accessible.
Sam Cooke – Live at the Harlem Square Club
James Brown’s Live at the Apollo is often viewed as the greatest live soul album of all time. And really, you can’t dispute that. That being said though, I feel that a great deal of Brown’s performances were based on the visuals. The same can’t be said for Sam Cooke. Where most of Cooke’s studio recordings border on easy listening (and that’s not a criticism) this album just lays it down. “Cupid”, “Chain Gang” and “It’s Alright/Sentimental Reasons” are played with such force and power you can almost feel the heat from the sweat from both the band and the audience. Put this album on, and I guarantee an instant party.