Bob Dylan in 1996: the master songwriter returns after five years out.

By Tony Attwood

Article amended 15 June 2017

Bob Dylan toured consistently in 1996 from April through to August, before finally taking a break.  And at this point, for the first time in over five years, he started writing and recording new songs again, and from this we have the first set of songs that became Time out of Mind.  

The re-writing of the songs, plus the addition of new compositions, continued through to 1997, but 1996 clearly marks not just the end of Dylan’s longest period without writing songs at all but the emergence of a new way of writing songs about moving on – and despair. 

According to Daniel Lanois who produced the album with Dylan (reported via Wiki), Dylan and he used to go the car park to discuss the recording in absence of the band. Lanois elaborated their discussion on the song “Standing In The Doorway”. “I said ‘listen, I love “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands“. Can we steal that feel for this song?’ And he’d say ‘you think that’d work?’ Then we’d sit on the fender of a truck, in this parking lot in Miami, and I’d often think, if people see this they won’t believe it.”

15 songs were recorded for the album of which ten were written in this year.

Dirt Road Blues, the song that started Dylan’s return to songwriting after all these years is an improvised 12 bar country blues: a good place to start.  For  how incredibly appropriate that the whole process re-started not just with “Gon’ walk down that dirt road, ’til someone lets me ride” – a reflection on the endless “moving on” that had been part of Dylan’s writing and his life on the road, all these years.

And he tells quite clearly that this life is not stopping with “Gon’ walk down that dirt road until my eyes begin to bleed”.

But let us not forget how this song ends: “Gon’ walk on down until I’m right beside the sun, I’m gonna have to put up a barrier to keep myself away from everyone.”  And there are certainly moments in this collection of songs that tell us that is absolutely what he is doing.  In many ways he is writing again because he’s had enough.  Of everything.

If this were just another Dylan song I’d perhaps not even think of these lines in this context, but this is the first Dylan song in years and years.  And then it gets worse…

If I ever saw you coming I don’t know what I would do
I’d like to think I could control myself, but it isn’t true
That’s how it is when things disintegrate
And I don’t know how much longer I can wait

Then Dylan wrote Mississippi but as we know, was unhappy with the recorded versions so dropped it from the album, and after that he moved onto writing Highlands.  It is an extraordinary set of jumps both lyrically and musically – but the theme of the influence of the environment on how you feel is in both songs.

And true, Dylan is still writing about travelling and wishing to be elsewhere.  Mississippi, the Aberdeen waters…we are moving on and on… “I crossed that river just to be where you are” onto “I’m going there when I’m good enough to go”; Dylan still feels like a prisoner.

Dreaming of You didn’t make the album, perhaps because of its lines which are derivative from Standing in the Doorway, but it is a truly remarkable piece of music and really deserved to be given a place.  After all, couldn’t he have just re-written those lines if they popped up by mistake?

Marching to the City came next – and this is the one that I think was out of phase with the rest of the writing, and so in my view it was right to drop from the album.  But then Dylan was back on form with Million Miles.  He’s still writing about being lost with this 12 bar blues, but at least he’s trying to get back rather that just disintigrate.  The mood has changed.  Not totally but quite a bit.

And then, and then, and then… suddenly, having not written for so many years, Bob writes not just one masterpiece (Mississippi being the first of this period in my view) but another with Not Dark Yet.

What is extraordinary is how much Not Dark Yet stands out from the rest of Dylan’s work this year.   Yes, it is still utterly black (if you’ll forgive that word for a song with this title) but black in a different way.  A different kind of black – which I know sounds pretentious, but I find it hard to locate other words that express my feelings.

Something happened between “Million Miles” and “Not Dark Yet”.    I wish I could tell you what, but I wasn’t there so I can’t.   Maybe this is because I have always been so overwhelmed by Not Dark Yet.  For even after all these years of living with Not Dark Yet I still get tears in my eyes.  I can also still remember exactly, in every detail, my reaction on playing Not Dark Yet for the first time – where I was and what I was doing and who I was.   It is a song that from the moment I first heard it, took me over and wrapped itself around my life.  And yes I think too of my parents, no longer with us, and that too makes me cry.

It is a song that seems to have come from the general feeling of the songs Dylan wrote this year, but it also stands apart in every way.   Just listen not to the lyrics, but to how Dylan sings it.

There is a link between “Not Dark Yet” and “Red River Shore”, the final composition of the year, but it is the nature of that final song that led it to being cut from the whole album.  If you just take the line “we’re living in the shadows of a fading past” there is a strong connection with Not Dark Yet, but the style and approach is out of phase with what had gone before, and what was to happen in the following year as the writing of the album was concluded.  I think it was absolutely right to drop “Red River Shore” from the album.  Not because it is not a worthy song, but because it just doesn’t fit.

But could Mississippi have fitted into the album?   Looked at now from this far on, I once again don’t think so.  Of the versions we have the first version on Bootleg 8 is the one that still makes me stop what I am doing and listen again and again, but for this album, no, Mississippi doesn’t work.

The songs of the year were clearly Mississippi and Not Dark Yet but I think we also had a forgotten masterpiece with Dreamin of You.  It is most certainly a song worth re-visiting.

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.


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