The Triumphant Return Of Bob Dylan

The official history of rock 'n' roll has it that Bob Dylan's major

early-to-late-'60s contribution to the music that can set you free

were pop songs that addressed more than just sex and teen

romance. Fine, but in focusing on the revolution in songwriting that

Dylan sparked, his other talents have been somewhat obscured.

So let me suggest that in addition to the songs Dylan penned, that

he is one of rock's great vocalists, an artist with a remarkable and

unmistakable voice who has, over the course of nearly 40 years,

influenced the singing style of such artists as U2's Bono,

the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Bruce

Springsteen, Lou Reed, Johnny Rotten and Eddie Vedder.

Time Out Of Mind, a rather extraordinary album, is

remarkable for the emotional intensity of Dylan's vocals, which

haven't sounded this good since the '70s.

Equally surprising, at least for those only familiar with Dylan's most

high-profile songs -- "Like A Rolling Stone," "Positively 4th Street,"

"Blowin' In The Wind" -- is that much of this album consists of love

songs, only the kind of love songs that one used to expect from an

ornery bluesman such as Howlin' Wolf. "Don't know if I saw you/ If

I'd kiss you or kill you," Dylan sings in the waltz-like ballad,

"Standing In The Doorway." Hey, he asked for water, she brought

him gasoline.

Though Dylan emerged from the New York folk scene, he has

always sung the blues. When he went electric in 1965, Chicago

blues guitarist Michael Bloomfield was his first-hired guitar-slinger,

while Bloomfield's replacement, Robbie Robertson, told me once

that as a kid he used to try and imitate Howlin' Wolf guitarist

Hubert Sumlin.

Here Dylan digs in hard on such bluesy numbers as "Million

Miles," "'Til I Fell In Love With You," "Cold Irons Bound" and the

raucous rockin' roadhouse number, "Dirt Road Blues," which

would fit right into The Basement Tapes album. On that last

one, Auggie Meyers' cheesy organ lines, and an infectious guitar

hook from producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel, Robbie

Robertson) provide the perfect setting for Dylan to warn, "Don't

walk down that dirt road..."

Make no mistake, this isn't a return to the hard-edged sound of

songs like "Tombstone Blues" on Highway 61 Revisited and

"Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat" on Blonde On Blonde. Rather,

songs here feel like they'd fit on his late-'60s-to-mid-'70s albums:

John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, New

Morning or Blood On The Tracks.

The seeming simplicity of these songs -- a casual listener could

write this album off as just a collection of love songs --

belies the mystery, confusion and, at times, pure dread expressed.

"I'll keep on walkin'/ 'Til I hear her holler out my name," "Dirt Road

Blues" concludes. Yet by the time Dylan delivers that line, he has

already indicated that his "baby" has left him, and since then he's

been "prayin' for salvation." And what if his woman never returns?

Is he doomed to walk that dirt road forever? We've also already

learned that he's "Rollin' through the rain in hell/ Lookin' for the

sunny side of love." This dirt road is as dark and dangerous as any

that Robert Johnson walked.

On "Dirt Road," and the other 10 songs, Dylan makes you want to

know what they're about. And not just want to know. Let this album

get its hooks in you, and you'll start feeling that you need to

get to the bottom of these songs -- if there is a bottom.

After so many years and so many albums that just didn't matter,

that raised only one question -- what happened to the once great

rock poet? -- Dylan has picked up where he left off with his last

great album, 1975's Blood On The Tracks. Amazingly, it is

as if the last 22 years didn't exist. Time Out Of Mind is

timeless, like Dylan's '60s and early '70s work. There are no

concessions to passing trends here.

Much credit must be given to Lanois, who enlisted pros with real

feel, such as Meyers, drummer Jim Keltner, keyboardist Jim

Dickenson and more than a half dozen others to provide just the

right sonic setting. Lanois, who is known for a production style that

emphasizes mood and atmosphere, plays lead and rhythm guitar

throughout the album. And then there is Dylan, who in addition to

writing all the songs and, of course, singing them, adds his

distinctive guitar, harmonica and piano to the mix.

Still, the music would be wasted if Dylan didn't, once again, have

something to say. And while in the abstract, it's hard to imagine

how, at this late date, he could deliver a 16-and-a-half minute epic

that wouldn't put one to sleep, as Greil Marcus has noted, the

song, "Highlands," will make you lose track of time, so

mesmerizing is the tale Dylan spins. "Feel like a prisoner in a

world of mystery," he sings early on. "...I wish someone would

come and push back the clock for me." And later, as if summing up

the black hole between Blood On The Tracks and Time

Out Of Mind: "You could say I was on anything/ Except on a

roll."

In his '50s, a rebel who has never made any concessions, Dylan

still understands just what's goin' on. When he sings, "I'm listening

to Neil Young/ I've got to turn up the sound/ Someone's always

yelling/ Turn it down," who can't identify with that situation? Who

hasn't sat in a room listening to a song that means everything at

that moment, only to have someone who doesn't have a clue ask

you to "turn it down?"

In the case of Time Out Of Mind, there is only one response

-- turn it up, and then turn it up some more.