By 1995, everyone was counting Bob Dylan out. He’d recorded two albums
of traditional songs, Good as I’ve Been to You, and World Gone Wrong, but hadn’t written any new songs since Under the Red Sky. While that record had at least one enduring song, “Born in Time,” it was generally considered to be a weak effort, half finished, tossed off. Later, Dylan would admit that he had been recording the Traveling Wilbury’s first record at that same time and his focus was divided.
Then in 1997, news came out of a new album of Dylan songs. One song was reported to be over 15 minutes long. I remember joking at the time with a friend and fellow Dylanophile that it was probably an instrumental. Expectations, in other words, were low.
Time Out of Mind came out in September of 1997, and from the first song, “Love Sick,” the listener knew that Dylan was back in full force – a new, dense, swampy, spooky sound pervaded the entire record, but the truly startling thing was the number of amazing songs that jumped off of it, one after another – the weary, remorseful, “Standing in the Doorway,” the existential blues of “Trying to Get to Heaven,” with its classic line, “They
tell me everything is gonna be all right, but I don’t know what all right even means.” The gloomy, apocalyptic, elegiac “Not Dark Yet.” But, Bob tells us, “it’s getting there.” “Cold Irons Bound,” “Can’t Wait,” and the sixteen minute surreal epic set to a simple blues riff, “Highlands.” These songs sound alien
to the present time – Bob and the musicians may have used electric instruments to play them, but they could have been recorded in another
era, maybe the 1920’s in an alternate universe, where Robert Johnson had usurped Charlie Christian and adopted electricity before him, attaching a pickup to his battered old acoustic guitar.
Dylan won a Grammy, was hailed in the press, the phrases “return to form” and “the master’s back” peppered articles and it was clear he’d found his voice again. Now the voice was ragged, ravaged growl of a road weary bluesman standing on a precipice, so spent he’s not sure if he’ll stare off to the horizon or just let himself fall forward into the sea.
If Time Out of Mind were to have been Dylan’s last album, it would have been a fitting cap to an astonishing career. He could have rightly sat back and taken his accolades and a well deserved rest. But no - Bob was just getting warmed up. The coming decade would prove to come close to being as creatively fertile and noteworthy as his mid-60's peak, when he recorded Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde in quick succession.
In September again, 2001, Dylan released Love and Theft. This was immediately a different album from Time Out of Mind, though it was mining the same terrain. Dylan was dipping into the vast American songbook for inspiration and sources, as he’d done throughout his career, but this time he’d expanded his reach to include such unexpected sources as Bing Crosby, adapting “Red Sails in the Sunset” to his new “Moonlight.” His homage to Charley Patton, “Highwater,” was the standout song on the album, a grim ode to the rising tide of the world's troubles, with echoes of the wwrath of hurricane Katrina. He adapted Paul Roberson’s “Lonesome Road,” for “Sugar Baby,” as he'd once adapted Robeson's "No More Autcion Block"
for "Blowin in the Wind." The mood of the record was light in places, though, with the rockabilly jump swing of “Summer Days,” the humor in “Po Boy,” the crackerbarrel philosophizing of “Floater (Too Much to Ask).”
Again, these seem like songs picked out of another time, perhaps the mid-1800’s, with whiffs of Stephen Foster and minstrel music woven in. It later was discovered that Dylan borrowed lines from an obscure Civil War era poet, Henry Timrod, which he sprinkled through the record. Love and theft indeed. Again, like Time Out of Mind, it was hailed as one of his best records, a masterwork of an artist working at the height of his powers.
In 2004, a book which was a partial autobiography, Chronicles, Volume One, came out. It was received much as the last two records were, with open arms. Critics talked about the rich language, puzzled over the lack of liner chronology and the periods he chose to write about. All in all, though,
it was regarded as a fascinating look into the mind of a seminal artist of the 20th, and now 21st century, and Dylan received high marks as a prose stylist, though the writing wasn’t particularly consistent in quality. The best passages, however, glowed, like they were written in burning coal.
In 2005, Martin Scorcese released a PBS documentary of Dylan’s life up
to 1966 and the motorcycle accident, called No Direction Home. Dylan gave him an unprecedented amount of time for interviews, ten hours worth, recorded back in 2000 with Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen. Dylan’s girl friend from his Greenwich Village days, Suze Rotolo was interviewed, along with Allen Ginsburg and Dave Van Ronk, both of who had passed away by the time the documentary aired. It was critically well received, and became just another notch in Dylan’s belt of accomplishments.
2006 saw the release of Modern Times, in which Dylan walked the same American landscape as he had in Love and Theft, with some more of the same, which was very good. New classics like “Workingman’s Blues #2,” “When the Deal Goes Down” and “Nettie Moore” were interspersed between the reworked blues of songs like “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and “When the Levee Breaks.” “Beyond the Horizon found him in Bing Crosby territory again, but he closes the record out with “Ain’t Talkin,’” a truly spooky and surreal song of survival and bleak angst, where he goes walking "through
the cities of the plague." Listening to this grim tale of bitter wisdom, we know we're firmly in the hands of a wizened American master.
Even Dylan’s outtakes were magnificent. In 2008, Columbia released Tell Tale Signs, a collection of alternate takes, previously unreleased songs and songs released on movie soundtracks going back as far as 1989’s Oh Mercy. Tell Tale Signs stands on equal ground with Love and Theft and Modern Times as a testament to Dylan’s revived powers – “Red River Shore,” an outtake from Time Out of Mind is one of Dylan’s best, a classic that hearkens back to “Girl From North Country,” yet is a much greater song, an epic recollection that again sounds like it could have been recorded in a distant past. Why it was left off of Time Out of Mind is mind boggling. Dylan of course has done this sort of thing before – he left one of his greatest songs, “Blind Willie McTell,” off of Infidels. “Cross the Green Mountains,” from the movie soundtrack Gods and Generals, set in the barren landscape of the civil war, contains the scripture-like line, “pride will vanish and glory will rot, but virtue lives and cannot be forgot.” “Tell Ol’ Bill” and “Huck’s Tune,” two other movie soundtrack songs, could have easily found a place
on any of the above records. "Most of the Time," from the Oh Mercy sessions, revives the song from producer Daniel Lanois' turgid and mannered album version. Guitar, vocals and harmonica, bare bones Bob singing like he was born to, making the song achingly personal and therefore classically universal. It makes you yearn for the day he'll actually make that rumored all-acoustic record of originals with Rick Rubin.
Together Through Life came out in 2009, and showed itself to be a worthy third part of a trilogy, though it may be the least important of the three, if you want to make comparisons, which, as Cervantes (and Kerouac) said, are odious. The Dead’s Robert Hunter collaborated with Dylan on the lyrics, which are good and don’t sound much different to me than other Dylan lyrics. The sound came out of Mexican border’s dusty streets and sported a jaunty style, with copious amounts of accordion, courtesy of Los Lobos' David Hidalgo. Again, classics pepper the record – “If You Ever Go
to Houston,” “Beyond Here Lies Nothin,’” and the sprightly closer, “It’s All Good,” which is an upbeat-in-tempo counterpoint to Modern Times' “Ain’t Talkin.’” Dylan goes through a litany of the world’s troubles, but answers them with the caustic, ironic jab at the current parlance, “But you know
what they say, man, it’s all good.”
The last record he released in this amazing decade was a Christmas
album of standards, Christmas From the Heart, the proceeds of which contributed to a good cause, helping to feed hungry children in America.
The recording itself was… odd, charming, unusual, downright strange – you can read a review here, but on subsequent listens, damn if it doesn’t grow on you. It’s Bob doing old Christmas songs with his excellent band and background singers, what can you say? Near the end of this decade, Dylan also had drawings and paintings released in an ongoing exhibition, called The Drawn Blank Series (link here), an acclaimed radio show, and, oh yeah.. played about 100 live dates every year, continuing on his Never Ending Tour.
The next decade is coming, and bless him, it seems like he’s just getting started.