The king of folk rock is suffering middle-age blues.
Bob Dylan, 56, this week released his first album of new material in seven years, "Time Out of Mind" (Columbia CK 68556). Filled with questions about life, death and love, it's as if Dylan were confronting a heavenly tribunal and defending his life.
There's something oddly compelling about Dylan's personal doubts. The singer, dubbed the voice of his generation, came of age in the '60s era of social unrest and moral confusion. Now, three decades later, Dylan finds himself caught trying to figure out what those times and his role in them means.
The album, featuring Dylan's gravel voice and sparse guitar, is about growing old and facing the homestretch of life. His wounded vocals, strained, edgy and at times barely audible, add credibility and a blues feeling to the CD.
It turns out the icon is human after all. Dylan seems to sum up everything on a song called "Highlands," when he sings about the party's being over, adding, "There is less and less to say/I got new eyes/Everything looks so far away."
If that sounds gloomy, check out these lyrics: "When you think you've lost everything/You find out you can always lose a little more."
Like the character in "Show Boat," Dylan sounds tired of living and afraid of dying. He's looking to a higher source for answers and meaning, and his spiritual quest remains unfulfilled.
The dark and pensive mood is captured with bittersweet fatalism on the song "Trying to Get to Heaven," before "they close the door."
Another song, " 'Til I Fell in Love," moves to an R & B beat as Dylan ponders the hereafter and scolds, "When I'm gone/You'll remember my name."
Dylan's psychic frailty is showing, and with good reason. In May, he was rushed to the hospital with heart problems that were at one point considered life-threatening. Old Bob seemed ready to buy the farm, but he recovered and went back on tour.
I went to see him at Darien Lake this summer, expecting the worst. To my surprise, Dylan was energetic and inspiring that night. His young backup band was hot, and Dylan performed with a noble aura, as if nothing else mattered except the music.
Dylan hunched over, played electric guitar and sang with a gritty rock 'n' roll grace and poise that was inspiring.
The new album offers a revelatory glimpse of Dylan's encounter with mortality.
"I get very meditative sometimes," he told the New York Times, "and this one phrase was going through my head: "Work while the day lasts, because the night of death cometh when no man can work."
Such spiritual philosophy dominates the album. It was produced by Daniel Lanois, who has worked with such acts as U2 and Peter Gabriel.
The CD has a rawness and vitality Dylan has not exhibited in the past decade. He goes back to his rockabilly roots on "Cold Irons Bound," and adds a dash of a reggae beat to "Love Sick." Dylan pays homage to the blues on such numbers as "Dirt Road Blues" and "Highlands."
The lyrics, as always, are what lift Dylan's work, and "Time Out of Mind" is no exception. Only now, instead of pondering the state of the world, Bob Dylan dissects Bob Dylan.
"Yesterday, everything was going too fast/Today is moving too slow," a wistful Dylan sings on "Standing in the Doorway." "I've got no places left to turn/I've got nothing left to burn."
Bob Dylan's back pages are once again worth hearing.
CD Review Time Out of Mind **** Bob Dylan's first album of new music in seven years.