Time Out of Mind

“It’s a spooky record, because I feel spooky. I just don’t feel in tune with anything. 

quote from Bob Dylan in America -Sean Wilentz p. 255

The other day I was trying to re-connect my phone to a speaker attached to my TV. After several minutes of futilely pressing buttons labeled with inscrutable icons, it started working again. To test it further, I played the song suggested by my music app, Standing in the Doorway.

With my head still hovering next to the speaker I was in perfect position to appreciate one of the great joys of this song, and really, much of the album Time Out of Mind: Dylan’s carefully calibrated vocals. I assume the producer Daniel Lanios is responsible for putting the vocals up front in the mix. If so, he did the world a great service.

I’ve been listening to Time Out of Mind quite a bit since. Perhaps it’s not one of Dylan’s great albums. There’s some filler. Dirt Road Blues, Million Miles, and Til I Feel in Love with You aren’t classics. Still, the record contains his strongest writing since at least Infidels, perhaps even Desire. The performances – especially the vocals – are some of the best ever.

 I decided to read-up on the album and share some of the information I uncovered.

Song and Dance Man – Michael Gray

Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man is the best resource for in-depth analysis of Dylan’s work. That being said, the book is not a fun read. It’s very long. And I certainly don’t agree with everything he says. For example, he’s quite hard on the more than decent Make You Feel My Love. He sarcastically calls it Make You Feel My Lurve. He mocks the admittedly semi-hackneyed lyrics, forgetting it’s a pop song, not a poem. Still, Gray provides a lot to ponder.

Gray devotes a fairly tedious – but certainly thorough – fifty pages to Time Out of Mind. He calls out the sometimes “flabby” lyrics. For example, he cites these lines from Cold Irons Bound.

	There's too many people, too many to recall
	I thought some of 'em were friends of mine
	I was wrong about 'em all

He writes: “You listen in vain here for a nod towards the complexity of the ebb and flow of old friendships, the gains and losses we go through” – blah blah blah – that kind of stuff goes on for a few pages, you get the idea. I don’t disagree.

 Gray doesn’t love the sound either.

The production, for all Daniel Lanois’ alchemical skills, sometimes accentuates the sense of a sham.” And this a few pages later. “Some tracks (he cites Dirt Road Blues) have Dylan so buried in echo that there is no hope whatever of hearing any of the detailing in this voice that was so central and diamond-like a part of his genius.” He complains about the vocal mix on Cold Irons Bound as well (the vocal mix of Dirt Road Blues sounds just fine to me; I tend to agree on Cold Irons, the live version is better.)

Happily, Gray eventually comes around.  He says:

The process of growing to appreciate “Time Out of Mind” is a weird business – but at the core of it is something deeply familiar to me yet almost forgotten: the long-absent communing with a real Bob Dylan album – the inward thrill, the continuous inner dialogue, the repeated playing, cross-referencing, laughing aloud, floating on the moving sea of it and finding within it a cohesion of sound and purpose, an infinite play of fleeting, indefinable frissions and at the heart of it a Bob Dylan of absolute convection, with no nervous corner of the eye directed at other people’s approbation or taste.”

Well said.

As I said, the book is worth checking out, albeit exhausting. We’ll skip to the end.

I don’t want to end with invidious comparisons between any Dylan albums – but in spite of its huge flaws “Time Out of Mind” is up there somewhere, and that is because of the complex, multi-layered experience it offers as you listen and re-listen. The experience of grappling with a real Bob Dylan album.

Bob Dylan in America – Sean Wilentz

After the wordy Gray, it’s a relief to read the perhaps too succinct Wilentz, an academic from Yale. I expected a ponderous book filled with jargon, but surprisingly, it’s quite readable.

Wilentz only devotes a few pages to TOOM. In summary, he writes:

Song after song on Time Out of Mind conveys a similar [referring in particular to Not Dark Yet] sense of loss and estrangement, portraying a world emptied of everything the singer has ever valued, where his loved ones are either gone or no longer his loved ones. The best he can do is dance with a stranger, which only reminds him that he once truly loved someone else. (p. 255)


Dylan.FM is a fairly new podcast. Several episodes focused on TOOM.

Season 1 episode 20 features long-time Dylanologist Michael Zuckerman. The episode focuses on Dirt Road Blues but also touches on TOOM in general. Zuckerman mentions that Dirt Road Blues the only song on the album that was recorded with members of Dylan’s touring band. He says it addresses the love subject as “she” instead of “you” as most of the other songs do, which is a bit jarring. Zuckerman ranks TOOM in the top ten of Dylan’s albums (no argument from me on that). 

Season 1 episode 9 features Larry Starr, professor emeritus of Music History at University of Washington. Most Dylan-related commentary focus on the lyrics, but Starr, naturally as a music professor, focuses on the music. There’s a lot of interesting information in the episode, but here are a few tidbits related to TOOM. In Million Miles, Dylan repeats the last line instead of the first two as typical of a blues song. Not Dark Yet has ten beats per line instead of the typical eight, using the last two to add a pause, which adds weight to the line. Starr notes that To Make You Feel My Love is a Tin Pan Alley style song, consisting of the typical four parts, with a bridge, and a AABA rhyming pattern. He notes that Dylan interest in this type of song is not new; he included a version of Blue Moon on Self Portrait in 1970. I had forgotten about that.

Season 1 episode 21 features Michael Brauer, the sound engineer in charge of remixing TOOM for the new Fragments bootleg collection. Brauer has done eight previous Dylan releases. He said his instructions were to make the vocals more “natural” and “simpler.” It seems to be that Dylan has never been completely happy with sound. See this Rolling Stone article that describes the tension in studio.  Although I’m sure he was ecstatic about the albums popularity, and does give Lanios credit, it hard not to notice that he seems at best ambivalent about it. It’s also perhaps telling that he has produced his own work ever since. 

I’m still continuing my study of this album – including the new Fragments release, which I think is absolutely terrific. See below – Further Reading – for some of the other material I found worthwhile.

Selected Performances

The wonderfully weird “Soy Bomb” inserted Grammy performance.

Check out the link below to see what Soy Bomb has been up to since.


Further Reading
Bob Dylan: Time Out of Mind Album Review | Pitchfork

2 thoughts on “Time Out of Mind”

  1. Thanks for this. I’d read the 2nd edition of Song and Dance Man (early 1980s) and it was the best book of poetic analysis I ever read.
    For most of the post-Blood on the Tracks music, I prefer cover versions
    from the ‘I’m Not There’ soundtrack. Sometimes Dylan’s later singing has too much of an iron lung sound, and the musicality only really comes out for me in those covers.

    By strange chance, I just got Volume 3 of Song and Dance Man last week, so I’ll probably be making a month-long dive. Thanks for the push.

    1. Thanks for the comment. It’s an excellent book, I think by far the best general Dylan book out there. A couple more obscure titles that I thought really worthwhile: The Nightingales’s Code, Performed Literature, and The Formative Bob Dylan.

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