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Why Bob Dylan’s haunting comeback album sounds just as Jewish as it ever did

1997’s ‘Time Out of Mind,’ with its nods to Solomon and Samson gets a redo courtesy of Columbia Records

When Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album was first released in September 1997, it was hailed as a full-fledged comeback for the rock poet, who seemed to have lost his way for most of the previous decade. His last album of original songs was 1990’s utterly forgettable Under the Red Sky. Plagued by some sort of writer’s block, Dylan released two solo acoustic albums of traditional folk and blues tunes in the early-1990s, and a then-obligatory MTV Unplugged live album in 1995.

Time Out of Mind was therefore justifiably seen as a return to a Bob Dylan at the height of his powers as a songwriter and recording artist, with many drawing favorable comparisons to his greatest works, including Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. One of the major newsweeklies trumpeted “Dylan Lives!” on its cover, reassuring those readers who, owing to his relatively low profile in recent years, may have counted him among the departed.

Time Out of Mind found a narrator dealing with mortality in a deeper, more profound manner than Dylan ever had before. These were not his first attempts to mine the topic, however — the songs on his debut album, the eponymous 1962 acoustic solo collection of folk and blues covers, were almost entirely about death (e.g., “In My Time of Dyin’,” “Fixin’ to Die,” “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”), sung by a 21-year-old with the grizzled voice of an 81-year-old who had lived the lifetime of ups and downs and hard living embedded in the DNA of the old songs.

The opening line of the first track on Time Out of Mind set the theme and tone for the entire proceedings: “I’m walking through streets that are dead.” The stark imagery and the gritty, gravelly vocals channeled those of a biblical prophet. And indeed, the lyrics of that first song, “Love Sick,” were rooted in the love poetry of King Solomon, whose aptly titled Song of Songs — commonly understood to be an allegory for the love between God and the people of Israel — has the exiled collective seeking His comfort from afar, explaining, “For bereft of Your Presence, I am sick with love.” Or, put another way, Israel is “lovesick” for God.

As it turned out, Time Out of Mind was one of Dylan’s most Jewish albums. In its references to shattering chains and eyes that bleed, “Dirt Road Blues” drew imagery from the biblical tale of Samson. A triptych of songs — “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” “Standing in the Doorway” and “Not Dark Yet” — took their themes from the Yom Kippur ritual. In “Standing in the Doorway,” the singer insists, “There are things I could say but I don’t / I know the mercy of God must be near.” The song “Not Dark Yet” captures the liminal state of consciousness that overtakes one over the course of Yom Kippur worship: “Shadows are falling, and I’ve been here all day / I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still / Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer / It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

And “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” offers a detailed description of the Neilah service, the final service of the day, offering worshippers their last opportunity to make teshuvah before sundown, before their names are inscribed in the Book of Life for the next year (or not). In Dylan’s words: “You can seal up the book and not write anymore / I’ve been … tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door.” Words spoken by someone on intimate terms with the arc of the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

Now, Columbia Records has released a five-CD box set called Fragments – Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996-1997): The Bootleg Series Vol. 17. The collection includes alternate versions of all the songs on the original album, as well as outtakes and live versions of every song on the album recorded in the years immediately following its release. The highlight of the compilation, however, is undoubtedly an entirely remixed version of Time Out of Mind, which in its original form won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year (unbelievably a first for Dylan).

And so you may ask, why? Why a do-over for an album that is already widely considered one of the finest full-length recordings by the only songwriter ever to win the Nobel Prize for literature? Would one have expected Albert Camus to offer a rewritten version of L’Étranger 25 years after its publication (aside from the fact that he died three years after winning the award)? Or that Saul Bellow would offer an updated version of The Adventures of Augie March for the 21st century?

If there was one aspect of Time Out of Mind that divided fans and critics alike, it was Daniel Lanois’  production. (Quick explanation for those not versed in the work of a record producer: A producer is responsible for how an album sounds. The producer’s toolbox includes everything from placement of microphones to the relative isolation of the instrumentalists to the addition of sonic effects, e.g., reverb and distortion, to oversight of how all the various elements of the recording relate to each other in the final recording, i.e., the “mix.” Different producers have different approaches and, especially with a heavy-handed aesthete like Lanois, unique sonic signatures. Think of the famed if nutty 1960s producer, Phil Spector, and how his so-called Wall of Sound, with its orchestral pomp and ample use of echo made mini-operas out of three-minute R&B and pop hits.)

By 1997, Lanois was a known quantity as a producer. A disciple of the production methods of Brian Eno, who was responsible for landmark recordings by David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2, Lanois went on to great success with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, U2 (in collaboration with Eno) and, yes, Bob Dylan, having produced Dylan’s woefully underrated 1989 album, Oh Mercy, which, to some listeners’ annoyance, bore Lanois’ heavy-handed stamp (e.g., making the album sound like it was recorded in a swamp, replete with the sounds of peepers and crickets).

So it’s not as if Dylan did not know what he was getting into when he enlisted Lanois for the producer’s chair on Time Out of Mind, even though, as he laid out plainly in his memoir, Chronicles, he was not always happy with Lanois’ methodology during the recording of Oh Mercy. Nevertheless, he went back to that well, and Lanois delivered what he was hired to do: a Daniel Lanois production. This was rare in Dylan’s career. While Dylan worked with a few mostly hands-off producers in the 1960s, he eschewed big-name producers who would want to put their stamp on his albums (with rare exception, such as his work with legendary producer Jerry Wexler on his gospel and R&B-influenced albums, Slow Train Coming and Saved). For the most part Dylan’s producers were record company staffers who oversaw Dylan’s albums from recording to final delivery, with little-to-no hands-on input into the creative and recording process and with Dylan standing in as the de facto, in-studio producer.

As it turned out, Daniel Lanois was the last producer Dylan ever worked with. Beginning with his next album, 2001’s ‘Love and Theft,’ Dylan albums started bearing a producer credit for Jack Frost, which everyone understood to be an alias for Bob Dylan (and not to be confused with Jack Fate, the name of the lead character played by Bob Dylan in his 2003 film, Masked and Anonymous). As Dylan himself explains, “The sound kind of takes care of itself. … You don’t want to have to do a lot in the control room.” Again, raising the question: Then why work with a sonic tinkerer like Daniel Lanois in the first place?

On the new, remixed version, the gauzy haze that blanketed the original Time Out of Mind has for the most part been lifted, much to the benefit of Dylan’s voice and the drama inherent in the instrumental exchanges between the musicians. With a less busy, quieter ambiance, guitars strike harder, drums roll larger, crescendos break bigger, and Dylan’s vocals emerge from a cloud into a sunnier day. In the new mix by Michael Brauer — best known for his work with the British rock band Coldplay — there is more space and air between the instruments and more of a live, roadhouse feel to the undertaking. Entire solo passages seem to have dropped in from another session. (They haven’t, but that’s the successful illusion of the remix.) The whole effort swings more. It’s exciting to hear it this way, and it may even be a more pleasurable listen than the original. It certainly sounds cleaner and less distorted.

But this sort of re-do comes with its own problems and pitfalls — this new Time Out of Mind is not the album that garnered all the critical raves and awards that were bestowed upon the original 1997 version. The liner notes pay lip service to the notion that this 2022 remix is not meant to supersede the original: “The album itself has been remixed to sound more like how the songs came across when the musicians originally played them in the room, without the effects and processing that Lanois applied later. It’s not meant to replace the Time Out of Mind that won all of those Grammys a quarter-century ago; it’s a reimagining, an alternate view of a great work of art.”

Still, one has to ask the question: If you had a friend who was new to the recorded works of Bob Dylan, and you could only recommend one version of Time Out of Mind, which one would you recommend: the new version or the original, more historically correct version, even knowing that the new version probably “sounds better?” This is the kind of question that keeps Dylanologists and philosophers (and philosophical Dylanologists) awake at night.

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