Producer Daniel Lanois returned to oversee this album of brooding modern blues and love songs, his soft, dense music bathing the mostly painful words in a haze of echo, distortion and compression. At times this drains the songs of energy, but it also lends heft to the weaker material. The overarching theme of Bob's 30th studio album is loss; that of love, of friends, sometimes of his sanity, of youth, and of time. There's fear, too, of being left behind, left alone to face what's coming. It's a record only an older person could write, although I had to remind myself that he was actually only 56 when it was recorded, a mere spring chicken compared with the man currently touring Europe.
His constant touring is reflected in the lyrics - there are many references to traveling: riding trains, being Dixie-bound, wanting to take to the road, people on platforms waiting, walking in the middle of nowhere (there's a LOT of walking), as well as trying to get to some distant place or other.
Love Sick begins with some brief tuning up, then an organ stabs from left to right (TOOM is really a headphones album) before Dylan informs us that "I'm walking, through streets that are dead". His voice is close-miked and growly, dialled up to at least Medium Phlegm. Engineer Mark Howard explained that Bob wanted a retro, '50s sound to his voice, like it was coming out of a radio or a gramophone. Using old microphones, his vocal was run through a distortion pedal into a small amp, which was itself miked, to provide an "old sound". This was blended 50/50 with the "clean vocal" to achieve a vintage feel, one that Dylan described as "spooky". It works well, and sounds like nothing he's done before.
Dirt Road Blues is a fidgety rockabilly number with criss-crossing guitars and a bluesy choogle. It's generic, but enjoyable nonetheless. After endlessly walking down a dirt road, the motion continues in Standing In The Doorway, which sees the protagonist walking through summer nights and riding a midnight train after losing at love. Slide guitar, churchy organ and Shadows-style strumming help amplify the hopelessness, and we leave him "...standin' in the doorway cryin', blues wrapped around my head".
The hopelessness lingers for Million Miles, a funky crawl through the dirt with slinky, jazzy guitar chords, and Bob plagued by voices in the night, trying in vain to bridge the gap between himself and his lover. Distance is again the enemy in ballad Tryin' To Get To Heaven, as heartbroken and alone he wearily seeks salvation. The music is a dense fog of compressed harmonica, organ, violin and a whole bunch of guitars. We're back to the blues for 'Til I Fell In Love With You, boasting jazzy electric piano courtesy of Jim Dickinson, and a sinuous guitar riff.
"Time is running away" during Not Dark Yet, for me the most affecting song on TOOM. A ghostly tambourine rattles in the distance as Dylan looks over the past while keeping one eye on the future, the end seeming much too close for comfort. It finishes with the moving "Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer, it's not dark yet, but it's getting there".
Clattering percussion, thunking bass and a cloud of guitars provide the backdrop to Bob's woes on Cold Irons Bound. He's losing his mind over love, and losing himself in the process: "I'm beginning to hear voices and there's no-one around" and "God, I'm waist deep, waist deep in the mist, it's almost like, almost like I don't exist". The whole thing is submerged in cavernous, intimidating echo.
I don't know where Make You Feel My Love came from, but it's like nothing else Dylan has written before. Perhaps its stands out so much because of the the songs that surround it, but this sentimental love ballad has an enormously strong melody. The lyrics are straightforward, and Bob accompanies himself on piano, joined by just quiet bass and funereal organ. Depending on your point of view it either nicely breaks up what can be a rather stodgy album, or kills the mood entirely. I've not quite made up my own mind, but whatever you think of its place on TOOM, its beauty and strength cannot be denied. Little wonder that it's been covered by Billy Joel, Garth Brooks and of course Adele, among others.
Can't Wait is another song of lost love, and a minor one in comparison to the many similar songs here. With our hero "...walkin' through stormy weather" and strolling through the graveyards of his mind (he must be exhausted by now), it acts as a stepping stone between the moonstruck Make You Feel My Love and the rambling epic that is album closer Highlands. Partly indebted to Robert Burns' "My Heart's In The Highlands" (1789), once it finds its groove it stays there, drifting airily over a gentle blues riff for 16½ minutes. There's mention of the king of long songs Neil Young, and a lengthy detour into a restaurant resulting in an odd conversation with a waitress (but thankfully not as baffling as Neil's "hip-hop haircut" in his 28-minute Driftin' Back). The rest of the time is spent describing a sense of disconnection and a yearning to be elsewhere in both time and space: "I wish someone'd come and push back the clock for me", "Well, I'm lost somewhere, I must have made a few bad turns". It's an odd combination of depression and playfulness, and the hypnotic quality of the music means that even at over a quarter of an hour it doesn't drag, although I'm glad he didn't use the rumoured 35-minute original!
In an interview for Newsweek in 1997 Dylan confessed that "I don't feel in tune with anything", and this out-of-time figure haunts TOOM with his archaic turns of phrase and fixation on loss and finality. The death of Jerry Garcia may have influenced the songwriting; although Bob's not exactly fixin' to die just yet, it sounds like mortality has been weighing on his mind.
Lanois' production, though skillful, is sluggish for the most part. His tasteful soundscapes are like a thick soup, and it took me many listens to appreciate all that was going on beneath the murky surface. The lack of "fills and frills" can make for a rather shapeless musical experience, which only took on an interesting form with much concentrated listening under headphones - I'd recommend this tactic to those unmoved by first impressions, as the rewards are rich.
Of course the critics went over the top at the time of release, hailing it as a masterful return to form. I suspect that this had more to do with the prospect of confronting the reality of a world without Dylan (due to a serious illness he suffered between its recording and release) than the actual content of TOOM, as although it marked one of his best albums in years, I don't think it quite deserved the hyperbole it attracted.
TOOM's sense of utter loneliness reminds me a lot of Blood On The Tracks, except that now Bob has been around for much longer, and has lost an awful lot more. It's often said that the greatest art comes from the deepest pain, and although I really hope he feels happier soon, in a selfish kind of way, I really don't.
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I'd love to know what you think of TOOM. Do tell me in the comments below.