There is a moment near the end of Bob Dylan's 41st album, Time Out of Mind, when the Dylan of 35 years ago reappears. You know, the skinny kid with the hurricane hair and the inscrutable smirk who blasted business as usual in the teeth? That guy.
As the 16-minute-long "Highlands" detours from its verse-chorus-verse path to an extended narrative bridge, the deadpan twang in Dylan's voice becomes more pronounced, and his old sly glee can be glimpsed. The voice — conversational, playful, sensual — snakes over a shimmering blues-guitar riff and the chords of a distant Farfisa organ as it recounts a conversation at a restaurant with a woman, a knockout "with a pretty face and long, white, shiny legs." The narrator and his female companion spar verbally, a comical exchange of clashing values and cryptic, coded messages. Desire cools as the singer realizes that he is in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong woman. He eases out of the joint and conveys the delight of a convict who has just tunneled out into the daylight: "I'm crossing the street to get away from a mangy dog/Talkin' to myself in a monologue/I think what I need might be a full-length leather coat/Somebody just asked me if I registered to vote."
Then the swagger is gone, and Dylan once again wears his 56 years as he rasps, "There's less and less to say . . . I got new eyes/Everything looks far away."
Time Out of Mind is thick with faraway ghosts. Although the deluge of breakup songs on the album might suggest that it is a long-lost sequel to Dylan's famed "divorce album" of 1975, Blood on the Tracks, the singer's world-weary delivery hints at a broader intent. When he recorded Blood on the Tracks, Dylan was just entering middle age and was still a major figure in pop culture as he made a conscious return to the spare, folk-oriented intensity of his early albums. Twenty-two years down the road, Time Out of Mind finds Dylan on the culture's fringe, confronting his advancing years and the prospects of failing health (he was hospitalized a few months ago for a heart ailment) and irrelevance.
Time's perspective is that of an outsider speaking to an absent confidant, a distant lover, a long-departed audience. He sings about love gone awry, but until the surreal conversation that occurs in "Highlands," that loss never acquires a human face. It's a memory, a dream, a specter, as if Dylan were singing not about a companion but about something far less tangible. He projects the unease of someone adrift in a world that he ceases to understand and that has ceased to understand him.
In this sense, Time Out of Mind is a more fully realized version of Oh Mercy, the 1989 album that Dylan recorded with producer Daniel Lanois. The new album not only reunites Dylan with Lanois, it also expands on the tone set by such Oh Mercy songs as "Everything Is Broken" and "Man in the Long Black Coat," in which Dylan sings, "People don't live or die; people just float."
As it turns out, Dylan was just getting warmed up. On Time Out of Mind, he paints a self-portrait with words and sound that pivots around a single line from the album's penultimate song, "Can't Wait": "That's how it is when things disintegrate."
Lanois, whose heavily atmospheric productions have brought an almost disembodied eeriness to albums by U2, Peter Gabriel and Emmylou Harris, among others, applies a more restrained touch here. The instruments are aligned in the mix with a 3-D depth, and the settings veer from the echo-drenched Sun Records thump of "Dirt Road Blues" to the jazz-organ combo at closing time that is evoked on "Million Miles." Dylan contemporaries such as pianist Jim Dickinson and organist Augie Myers, as well as blues guitarist Duke Robillard, build hypnotic, steady-rolling grooves that suggest a spooky David Lynch soundtrack. The empathetic, low-key support flatters Dylan's increasingly pinched voice to far greater effect than he has received on many of his recordings of the last 15 years.
Mortality bears down hard. "It's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there," Dylan declares in "Not Dark Yet." Shots of gallows humor ring out: "I know plenty of people put me up for a day or two," he sings on "Million Miles," as if affirming that he still has contact with the human race. Only "Make You Feel My Love," a spare ballad undermined by greetingcard lyrics, breaks the album's spell.
Time Out of Mind is Dylan's first studio release since the solo acoustic bookends Good As I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993), which reinvestigated the songs that fired his passion as a long-ago would-be Woody Guthrie. Now, Dylan has made a coherent, sonically striking but equally subdued ensemble album that sorts through the mess of the more recent past. Save for the brief reminder midway through "Highlands," the audacity of the young, supremely confident Dylan is long gone. In its place has come a voice that is less instantly arresting but nearly as disconcerting. As Dylan suggests in "Tryin' to Get to Heaven," it's a voice that is confident of only one thing: "When you think you've lost everything, you find out you can lose a little more."
This story is from the October 2nd, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.