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No 'Time' Like the Present

In the '60s, he said it all. But that doesn't mean Bob Dylan has run out of things to say. 'Time Out of Mind,' his new album, is despairing, hopeful, playful, long--and at times brilliant.

September 28, 1997|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

It's hard in pop music to let go of heroes, which is why old favorites continue to be such major concert draws. There is comfort in hearing again live the music that once touched or entertained us so deeply.

Yet nostalgia has its limits, which is why new albums by veteran acts don't sell with anywhere near the volume of concert tickets. The same fan who pays $50 to $100 to sit in a stadium to see a vintage band balks at handing over $12 for the same band's new album--unless it's a live or greatest-hits package. The seven most dreaded words at one of these concerts: "Here's another one of our new songs."

It's not so much that these veterans--including such legendary '60s forces as Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, both of whom have new albums out this week--lose the knack for writing songs. More typically, they just run out of things to say.

The Rolling Stones may have once defined the notion of anarchy and rebellion in rock, but they haven't made an album since 1981's "Tattoo You" that stuck with you longer than the accompanying tour.

Dylan, rock's master songwriter, had the good sense in recent years to wait until he found something worth relating. He has continued to release albums and tour in the '90s, but therecords have either utilized his old songs (a rarities package here, an "MTV Unplugged" there) or featured his interpretations of old folk and blues tunes.

Given the absence of new Dylan songs, it was reasonable to speculate that he had lost his desire for songwriting--tired, perhaps, of always being measured by the impossibly high standards he set in the '60s, when he transformed pop music by combining the energy of rock with the commentary and confession of country, blues and folk.

All of which makes his new "Time Out of Mind" such a striking arrival. It's arguably Dylan's most artful and convincing collection since the '70s, which yielded such dividends as "Blood on the Tracks," the deeply moving account of the breakup of a marriage, and "Slow Train Coming," a much underrated look at a man's spiritual reexamination.

When Dylan spoke in the early days about traveling down the road, it was with the optimism and independence shared by a Kennedy-inspired generation intoxicated by its own sense of destiny. In "Time Out of Mind," he again refers in several songs to the road and the once equally liberating "midnight train," but now it's with the realization of a man who knows his generation is nearing the end of its journey, and is not sure what to do about it.

Relationships have always been a source of struggle in Dylan's music, but there's more than bitterness and heartache at the core of this album. There's a sense of confusion and weariness in these tales of love and life that is compounded by a constant awareness of the passage of time. "It's not dark yet," he sings solemnly at one point, "but it's getting there."

(Listening to these references, it's tempting to assume Dylan wrote the songs after entering a hospital in May for treatment of pericarditis. But in fact the album was recorded before the illness was diagnosed.)

The album's centerpiece is "Highlands," a brilliant, free-wheeling, 16-minute song that initially seems absurdly long, but is so filled with surprising insights and twists that it defies you not to stick around for the entire musical trip, then leaves you wishing it went on for another verse or two.

Built around a gentle folk melody, it's a rich, multi-level tale that summarizes virtually every theme in the album, from spiritual longing to bruises and regrets.

But the most distinctive moment in the song is a scene that seems a rare reflection by Dylan on the burdens of the artist, and the fickleness of critics and fans. It's built around a chance exchange with a waitress who insists that he draw her picture, and then dislikes what she sees.

The points in the song are expanded upon elsewhere in the album, sometimes with bitterness ("Love Sick"), sometimes with lightness (the delightful rockabilly of "Dirt Road Blues," where he goes out in the rain and hail, looking for the sunny side of love), sometimes despairing ("Not Dark Yet"), sometimes hopeful (the exquisite "Tryin' to Get to Heaven").

The writing isn't the only triumph of "Time Out of Mind." Rather than the pinched mumble that has characterized so many of his '90s shows and TV appearances, Dylan's vocals are clear and convincing, playful where they need to be, growling and dark elsewhere.

Producer Daniel Lanois, who helped bring much color and character to Dylan's "Oh Mercy!" in 1989, again serves Dylan well, giving a constant sense of exotica and freshness to the music's blues and folk base.

But he and Dylan have allowed the album to run too long. It's important that the songs have a loose, unhurried feel because that's the pace that Dylan is trying to convey. At one point, he even sings, "Yesterday, everything was goin' too fast / Today, it's movin' too slow."

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