“Time out of mind” starts just about as low as you can imagine – “Love Sick” tells us the singer has had enough – enough not just of love, but of life. It is the ultimate farewell song.
Except it is not, for although it is hard to imagine the album could get any lower in emotional terms Dylan does just that. And we are asking just how sick of life has Dylan got?
“Dirt Road Blues” seems to offer some chance of respite, but then we have “Standing in the Doorway”, and amazingly we are even deeper in the emotional mire than “Love Sick”.
It is an extraordinary achievement, not just because of the lyrics, not just because of the melody, nor even the chord sequence (which unusually modulates from E major to A major) but also for the production. Dylan’s songs, as we all know, are often rushed through, recorded with errors from the accompanying musicians allowed to stand. (Think of the bass player on Johanna if you want one example).
But not here – this is perfection; the perfection of darkness.
Yet in contrast Dylan’s voice is soft and gentle, as if he is resigned to his fate – and indeed that is where he ultimately takes us with Not Dark Yet.
But that is three tracks away. We start off here with very Dylan-esque commentary (“Yesterday everything was going too fast, Today, it’s moving too slow”) but then almost immediately we are shocked…
“Don’t know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you
It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow.”
Not only are the lyrics shocking, but the melody just strolls along, with the descending bass (and thank goodness for a bass player who has learned his part) and the slide guitar. Even the drummer knows how to be laid back.
There’s no doubt that the subject matter has not changed from “Love Sick” – his lover has left…
“The ghost of our old love has not gone away
Don’t look like it will anytime soon”
And we remember that this is the man who just a few years back gave us that most amazing lovers’ line ever, “I’m going to look at you til my eyes go blind”.
We also wonder, did he kill her?
“Maybe they’ll get me and maybe they won’t” suggests that this is more of a horror than we ever imagined. Or is going to kill himself…
“I know the mercy of God must be near, I’ve been riding the midnight train”
“I can hear the church bells ringing in the yard I wonder who they’re ringing for”
He is trying to live on (“Last night I danced with a stranger, But she just reminded me you were the one”) but he is going nowhere. Anyway, he’s sick of love, as we already know.
So life stops, he stops, and he prepares us for the journey towards death that Not Dark Yet foretells. He has nothing to do, and nowhere to go – reliant on others now, not himself. This is the end, “I see nothing to be gained by any explanation”.
And that’s it.
“You left me standing in the doorway crying
Blues wrapped around my head”
But it would be a mistake to think this is just about the lyrics. “Standing in the doorway” is an extraordinary piece of music, brilliantly played. What Dylan song has given us such lyricism, such gentleness, and all played against such a dreadful storyline? Nowhere has lost love been portrayed so exquisitely.
On its own this song is an utter masterpiece. In the context of Time Out of Mind it is a work of genius. For this is the song, along with Not Dark Yet, that gives us the meaning of the album’s title.
If Dylan had written nothing else, he would be worthy of a place in the hall of fame.