Bob Dylan is releasing his 41st album (by Columbia Records' count) in late September. It's neither yet another "greatest hits" package (No. 40) nor a plugged/unplugged number (No. 39) nor a collection of neo-hootenanny covers (Nos. 38 and 37). Instead, the disc contains the first new songs Dylan has made public in seven long, dull years.
The disc is innocuously titled "Time Out of Mind," and at one point the 56-year-old cultural icon confesses, "I wish someone would push back the clock for me." In these Fleetwood Mac days, can you imagine such an admission coming from any other '60s relic -- say, Mick Jagger? No way -- the man is too perpetually hip. As for Bob, "someone" has already stepped forward to push the clock back for him -- Daniel Lanois. It's 1989 again, the year the two first worked together on "Oh Mercy" (No. 34). You see, Lanois is the producer of "Time Out of Mind," their eight-years-late follow-up. Although we all agree "Oh Mercy" was no "Blood on the Tracks 2," it was Dylan's most energetic recording since "Infidels" (No. 29) in 1983. It's now been seven long, lackluster years since "Oh Mercy" -- can Lanois fire up the Bard a second time?
I have an answer. Although I'm only an amateur Dylanologist, I'm not a Dylan apologist as are most professional members of the D group (say Greil Marcus, etc.). This means I have no trouble calling a bad song bad. By trade, I'm a Little, Brown novelist and this was what allowed me the privilege to attend a "listening session" in the Sony Tower in Manhattan to hear a work tape of "Time Out of Mind" two months before the scheduled release date. Not that Columbia is corporately connected to Little, Brown. I just shamelessly told the Columbia promo man how my forthcoming novel, "Bunny Modern" (No. 2), is set 20 years in the future when current electricity has disappeared because the voltage has flowed backwards in time to July 25, 1965, Newport, R.I. -- the moment when Bob Dylan first went publicly electric in America.
I know that sounds crazy, but my telling it scores me a spot on a couch in a windowless room filled with expensive, but chunky, wooden furniture located on the upper floors of the Sony tower in Manhattan. My listening partners are to be two Newsweek writers (one of whom is the only woman present). Also, the new editor of Spin. And last, a freelance journalist from Philly who just wrote a piece about the death of Jeff Buckley. We're all here because there will be no advance tapes of "Time Out of Mind" since Columbia isn't sure which 11 songs will remain on the record, and Dylan himself fears bootleggers.