In 2011, especially for listeners under 30, it’s difficult to remember exactly how far Bob Dylan’s star had fallen by 1997. The thinning of Dylan’s flock began in earnest during 1978 with his very public conversion to evangelical Christianity and the resulting trilogy of Christ-themed albums. That year’s Slow Train Coming was a sales success and garnered Dylan a Grammy. However, bolstered by this success, Dylan began what most observers consider the worst decade of his career. Saved and Shot Of Love shortly followed and both failed artistically and commercially. Further frustrating fans, the accompanying tours featured only the new material.
For many, the issue wasn’t the quality of Dylan’s new songs, though that was certainly a compounding factor, rather, it was the hypocrisy they saw in the songwriter; the same man who had once so flagrantly mocked those who hide behind Christianity on “With God On Our Side” was now evangelizing his audience. While Dylan’s tight connection with Christianity would eventually dissipate, he would find himself creatively mired for several years after, ultimately bottoming out with 1986’s unlistenable Knocked Out Loaded. It was a 1988 suggestion from U2’s Bono that Dylan hook up with producer Daniel Lanois that planted the seeds for Dylan’s career renaissance on 1997’s Time Out Of Mind.
For the first half of the 90s, Dylan seemed mostly disinterested in crafting new material, confirming as much in interviews; “there was a time when the songs would come three or four at the same time, but those days are long gone.” Nowhere is this point better illustrated than 1992’s Good As I Been To You, the first all covers album of his career. Even Dylan biographer and enthusiast Clinton Heylin was beginning to lose hope, writing, “the commitment required to work on an album of original songs, to bend and twist them to his peculiar vision… is such that only a truly exceptional collection of new songs… is likely to drive his weary bones into those narrow confines once more.” Not until the fall of 1996, in Lanois’s Oxnard California studio, did Dylan begin to demo a new batch of songs.
What may have once been a healthy and respectful relationship between Dylan and Lanois would prove otherwise during the Time Out Of Mind sessions. For the production, Dylan envisioned an early rock n’ roll sound (think Shep & The Limelites’ “Daddy’s Home”) while Lanois pushed for the darker, murkier sound of the duo’s first collaboration, 1989’s Oh Mercy. Such disparate visions often create an apprehensive work environment, and complications inevitably arose as Lanois was not a hands-off producer. Dylan often felt undermined during the recording process and resorted to “protecting songs” from Lanois. This tension would come to have major repercussions on the final product. For Dylan’s part, he brought his most inspired collection of songs in over 20 years. The new material, largely constructed around Dylan’s increasingly frequent contemplation of his mortality, naturally lent itself to his voice at the time: worn from the years, yet still elastic and expressive. Ever the road warrior, Time Out Of Mind would be Dylan’s last album before his voice further deteriorated as the result of aging and the ‘Never Ending Tour’.
Certain songs benefitted greatly from Lanois’ production. After many attempts to make “Doing Alright” into something grandiose, the tune was slowed down and fixed up with the song’s defining reverberating guitar riff and re-titled “’Til I Fell In Love With You”. Such a transformation is simply unfathomable without Lanois. Similarly, “Cold Irons Bound” is made into one of the album’s key tracks by its mucky, echo-soaked production. Matching the sonic tenor, Dylan sings, “I’m waist deep in the mist / it’s almost like I don’t exist.” In the few spots where Dylan’s simpler recording approach was used, the results were staggeringly successful. “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, one of the few gospel-inspired songs not stripped of its gospel sound, benefits greatly from the space allowed to the organ and the vocal.
“Can’t Wait” began life at Oxnard as another haunting gospel tune. Pushing into his upper-register, Dylan’s lament of his age is clear, “maybe for you it’s not that late / but as for me, don’t know how much longer I can wait.” When the sessions moved to Miami’s Criteria Studios, Dylan’s approach and Lanois’ (man)handling of the sessions stripped the song of its power, producing the limp and layered version which appears on the record. Dylan, always toying with his work, drops the key from its original B-flat and accordingly his vocal transforms from a plaintive croon to a bitter growl. Engineer Mark Howard was instructed to treat the vocal track so as to make it sound electrified and fuzzed, the same procedure he had performed on Dylan’s harmonica. What should have been one of the landmark songs on the album is relegated to mere filler as a result.
What ultimately clinches the fate of Time Out Of Mind was the decision to not include the three best songs he had written for the album. Why these songs weren’t included is a matter of some debate. Some Dylan collaborators like Duke Robillard contend the fault lies with Dylan himself, stating, “Dylan always leaves his best songs off the album.” Another take is that Lanois’ resistance to Dylan’s production ideas forced the songwriter’s hand. As in most cases, the truth lies somewhere in between.
Had it been included, “Marchin’ To The City” would have been the best gospel tune on Time Out Of Mind. Like “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, and unlike “Can’t Wait”, the song still at one point played like a gospel number at Criteria. This version, included on the first disc of late career Dylan outtakes collection Tell Tale Signs, harkens back musically to the best moments of Dylan’s born again period with a lyrical content more mature and adapted to Dylan’s contemporary concerns. In some ways, the exclusion of “Marchin’” can be excused, as this song was worked over into an early form of “Doing Alright”, itself worked out into “’Til I Fell In Love With You”. Given this and the gospel redundancies that would have resulted, the exclusion can be forgiven. Less understandable is the removal of “Red River Shore”, which would have been a glorious torchbearer for Dylan’s ‘girl I left behind’ family of songs.
Yet, the most egregious sin by a country mile was the failure to include “Mississippi”. Listeners familiar with late-period Dylan are already acquainted with this song, as it was re-recorded for 2001’s Love And Theft. That version, beautiful as it is, does not compare with the power of Dylan’s earlier performance at Criteria. It wasn’t until the second disc of 2008’s Tell Tale Signs that the best version of Dylan’s best late-period song surfaced. In one of his best vocal performances since the mid-70s, Dylan writes himself as a prison-hardened man just trying to pick up the pieces in a world he no longer understands. Each and every one of the flaws on Time Out Of Mind could be forgiven had this version of “Mississippi” been included. Dylan apparently felt unsatisfied with the song, and some of the blame lies on Lanois’ shoulders. If Dylan had a more hospitable working atmosphere, one gets the feeling the superior version of “Mississippi” would have seen the light of day sooner, and ultimately this colors one’s opinion of the album.
In a vaccum, Time Out Of Mind is one of Dylan’s better records, falling somewhere below his mid-sixties folk rock trilogy and above his non-Blood On The Tracks 70s releases. However, with better decision making, Time Out Of Mind could have stood eye to eye with any album in Dylan’s illustrious career and not blinked.