It catches Dylan in an uncommonly vulnerable position: Where his '80s output chronicled heartbreaks he'd heard about rather than lived, this work is saturated with the sound of personal anguish. Its roaring grooves and prowling shuffles amble along like a mobile celebration. But listen closely. Beneath that steady locomotion it's possible to hear the late-innings mutterings of a man still discovering his humanity, even as he stares at a gloomy twilight he never anticipated.
Recorded before Dylan's bout with a rare heart infection in June, Time is wise, but not the way Blonde on Blonde is wise. It's mournful, too, though not like Blood on the Tracks or any other Dylan classic, for that matter.
It represents a profound shift in strategy, away from the abstract and into the realm of pure feeling. Singing with stoic grace, Dylan offers a blow-by-blow of how it feels to be crushed by love. He captures the moment when love dies and someone is left standing in the doorway crying, then turns to the one thing he can rely on, the solace of the open road. He sings about the million miles of emotional distance between lovers, and the pain in his voice accounts for every one.
He doesn't say too much: The 11 songs of Time are notable for their understatement, and for narratives built from scraps of words. The first lesson Dylan learned from the blues is the importance of speaking plainly. Where some songwriters view the style as a license to embellish, Dylan uses its repetitive incantations as a clarifying agent that strips away delusions and filters out all but the most important emotions.
What's left is an armor-piercing form of communication. It's as if rock's greatest poet has concluded that there's no longer any advantage to being clever, and has decided just to speak his mind. He's long past caring about appearances. ``When you think that you've lost everything,'' he sings with a mixture of disgust and resignation on the jangly ``Tryin' to Get to Heaven,'' ``you find out you can always lose a little more.''
Such bitter wisdom connects everything on Time - even the songs not built on blues structure - with the fundamental pain of the blues. As he travels roads favored by drifters and takes his meals in empty restaurants, Dylan surveys the world and wonders ``if everything is as hollow as it seems.''
Convinced that loneliness is his lot, he pushes on, though he can't say why. ``I just can't remember what it was I came here to get away from,'' he admits, sounding dejected, baffled and thoroughly post-modern on ``Not Dark Yet.''
Elsewhere, Dylan is almost wistful as he imagines a world without the constant media chatter: ``Maybe in the next life I'll be able to hear myself think.''
One minute a cranky old man, the next a wry commentator, Dylan rarely lets his ideas get tangled up in language. He still thinks in metaphoric terms - the breathtaking ``Not Dark Yet'' is probably the most powerful exploration of aging rock-and-roll has produced - but he doesn't spend extra words getting his point across. The blues have made him terse. He cuts to the chase, nailing the mood with achingly simple phrases. Even the 16-minute free-associative rant ``Highlands'' is notable for its one-liners, delivered with the acerbic deadpan of a Catskills comic.
And like all great bluesmen, Dylan knows when to step aside and let the music take over. The best moments on Time all start with chugging, galvanizing accompaniment - the loose-limbed kick of ``Cold Irons Bound,'' the dusty holler of ``Dirt Road Blues,'' the retro crawl of `` 'Til I Feel in Love With You.'' Producer Daniel Lanois and a team of veteran musicians don't just support Dylan: They create a swamp chorale with lazy-river keyboards and layer upon layer of sobbing-and-weeping guitars. Sometimes they're coconspirators, and sometimes they function as a Greek chorus: The wrenching love song ``Standing in the Doorway'' begins with a guitar that paraphrases the indelible opening line (``Wise men say . . . '') from Elvis Presley's ``Can't Help Falling in Love.''
Those who have followed Dylan in the '90s won't be surprised by this triumph. Ever since the unfairly maligned 1989 work Oh Mercy, his first work with Lanois, Dylan has put his own stamp on folk, blues and other American song forms. He's toured constantly, and treated the road as a laboratory. He's developed into a convincing guitar soloist, a credible bluesman whose melodies start gently and finish with a wound-inflicting sting.
The process of improvisation has loosened him up. He's acquired a taste for simmering, tension-building backbeats, and now cultivates less-literal, open-ended treatments of his own classics, tunes he once plowed through with a sense of obligation.
These musical characteristics turn out to be crucial to Time Out of Mind. He needs the hissing, snake-like leads to illustrate ``Cold Irons Bound.'' He needs the measured processional cadence to render ``Tryin' to Get to Heaven'' as a quiet prayer rather than a desperate plea.
Most of all, the songs need Dylan's craggy, broken voice. Lots of people will sing these compositions - Billy Joel, of all people, has already covered the ballad ``To Make You Feel My Love'' - but few can hope to reach the emotional edge where Dylan lives. Juxtaposing hope against despair, and blind courage against bone-deep sadness, Dylan's stark delivery captures the bittersweet nature of the journey. He's ruminating more than singing, and as he surveys his still-healing wounds and reflects on the illusions he's left behind, one thing becomes clear: This world-weary voice is the only one that can make these grand elegies and shattered blues mean something.