Don't you think a song like "Cold Irons Bound" certainly has a drive to it?
Yeah, there's a real drive to it, but it isn't even close to the way I had it envisioned. I mean, I'm satisfied with what we did. But there were things I had to throw out because this assortment of people just couldn't lock in on riffs and rhythms all together. I got so frustrated in the studio that I didn't really dimensionalize the songs. I could've if I'd had the willpower. I just didn't at that time, and so you got to steer it where the event itself wants to go. I feel there was a sameness to the rhythms. It was more like that swampy, voodoo thing that Lanois is so good at. I just wish I'd been able to get more of a legitimate rhythm-oriented sense into it. I didn't feel there was any mathematical thing about that record at all. The one beat could've been anywhere, when instead, the singer should have been defining where the drum should be. It was tricky trying to steer that ship.
I think that's why people say Time Out of Mind is sort of dark and foreboding: because we locked into that one dimension in the sound. People say the record deals with mortality — my mortality for some reason! [Laughs] Well, it doesn't deal with my mortality. It maybe just deals with mortality in general. It's one thing that we all have in common, isn't it? But I didn't see any one critic say: "It deals with my mortality" — you know, his own. As if he's immune in some kind of way — like whoever's writing about the record has got eternal life and the singer doesn't. I found this condescending attitude toward that record revealed in the press quite frequently, but, you know, nothing you can do about that.
The language in Time Out of Mind seems very stripped down, as if the songs don't have the patience or room to bear any unessential imagery.
I just come down the line too far to make any superfluous song. I mean, I'm sure I've made enough of them, or that I've got enough superfluous lines in a lot of songs. But I've kind of passed that point. I have to impress myself first, and unless I'm speaking in a certain language to my own self, I don't feel anything less than that will do for the public, really.
"Highlands" strikes me as the album's most singular song. It begins in a place of isolation; it tells a story but rambles. It's poignant as hell, but it's also very funny — especially the conversation it portrays between the narrator and the waitress in the cafe. And by the time we get to the end of it, we don't know if we're in a place of desolation or release.
That particular song, we worked with a track that I had done at a sound check once in some hall. The assembled group of musicians we had down at the studio just couldn't get it, so I said, "Just use that original track, and I'll sing over it." It was just some old blues song I always wanted to use, and I felt that once I was able to control it, I could've written about anything with it. But you're right — I forgot that was on that record. You know, I'm not really quite sure why it seems to people that Time Out of Mind is a darker picture. In my mind, there's nothing dark about it. It's not like, you know, Dante's Inferno or something. It doesn't paint a picture of goblins and goons and grotesque-looking creatures or anything like that. I really don't understand why it is looked at as such a dark album, really. It does have that song "Highlands" at the end.
In the end, are you happy with Time Out of Mind? After all, it was seen as not merely a return to form for you but also as a real extension of your gifts — and as your most powerful work since 1975's "Blood on the Tracks."
Well, you know, I never listen to my records. Once they're turned in, I'm done with them. I don't want to hear them anymore. I know the songs. I'll play them, but I don't want to hear them on a record. It sounds superficial to me to hear a record — I don't feel like it tells me anything in particular. I'm not going to learn anything from it.
It was during the final stages of the album that you were hit with a serious swelling around your heart and were laid up in the hospital. You've said that that infection was truly painful and debilitating. Did it alter your view of life in any way?
No. No, because it didn't! You can't even say something like, "Well, you were in the wrong place at the wrong time." Even that excuse didn't work. It was like I learned nothing. I wish I could say I put the time to good use or, you know, got highly educated in something or had some revelations about anything. But I can't say that any of that happened. I just laid around and then had to wait for my strength to come back.
Do you think that the proximity of your illness to the album's release helped account for why reviewers saw so many themes of mortality in Time Out of Mind?
When I recorded that album, the media weren't paying any attention to me. I was totally outside of it.
True, but the album came out not long after you'd gone through the illness.
Yes. You were in the hospital in the spring of 1997, and Time Out of Mind was released in autumn that same year.
OK, well, then it could've been perceived that way in the organized media. But that would just be characterizing the album, really.
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