Mojo, February 1998

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Elvis Costello comes to praise Time Out Of Mind

I actually think it's the best record he's made. He had the guts to think about it for however long it took instead of just making records.

I think the sound of it is going to endure much better than Oh Mercy — I thought that Lanois production was too effete. The good songs on that record started to grate a little because the production was too at odds with the songs. But this time the production is very discreet. The recording of the voice is absolutely magnificent. He has got really interesting sounds in his voice, but some of them are very abrasive to our ears and certainly in concert can be very off-putting; but here some of his phrasing is absolutely unbelievable. You're not listening to hear sweet-voiced singing, you're listening to get the feeling he's singing about.

"Not Dark Yet" strikes you right away as a mighty, mighty song and at first I would have liked to have heard more melodies of the quality of "Standing In The Doorway Crying," "Trying To Get To Heaven" or "Not Dark Yet" and less of the blues tunes. When I did Kojak Variety I listened to a lot of Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed records, and they were making pop records; Willie Dixon was the master of making blues songs that were pop songs — he'd find a way of turning the change around in a way that was really memorable and distinct to that song. And the more I listen to this Dylan record, those blues songs have actually got very definite shape; once you get over the initial surprise that he's used the blues form so much, they are sticking in my mind as much as the ones that I got into right away.

I'm delighted that he's unafraid to say something as unfashionable as "We're all gonna die". But not in any kind of "Hey kids, let's all get spooky" way, he just said it straight out. It gets sort of funny after a while. I find it pretty consoling and not at all depressing. Blues don't make you feel bad. And the more I listen, the more humour and uplift I draw from it, rather than somebody blithely saying everything's gonna be all right. One of the saddest songs that ever used it was that Marley song "No Woman, No Cry," because the music completely contradicted the way he was singing it. You'd struggle to believe it. For somebody like Dylan who's had all these fantastic images pouring out of his head for most of his career, "Nothing means anything, life is hollow; we're gonna die, everything's far away" is the worst thing you could say, a big, admission of emptiness. But it's such a bleak thing to say, there's some solace in saying it. It can't scare you any more. Whether that's his intent is none of our business. I don't care to know whether it's his personal frame of mind or something that he knows to be the way things are at a certain time of life. It has the same effect. In a way it's a greater achievement to have imagined it if it hasn't happened.

The record I think is behind this is the Harry Smith archive (Anthology of American Folk Music reissued by Smithsonian Folkways). It's six CDs, an awful lot to get through, but wherever you start you come across something the like of which you've never heard before in your life. As I understand the story, the Harry Smith archive was out on vinyl in the '50s when Harry Smith, an eccentric figure and (great musicologist, gathered together all this stuff. There's two ways of looking at it: as either a trainspotterish, "Oh, you haven't heard One Legged Willie Flute from Arkansas?" or you can say, "These are humans and they were up a tree somewhere singing in some ungodly way which we can't understand." They're singing about babies dying, and it's easy for us to sneer, but if you'd been listening to the radio and were living in a community where babies were dying every day of TB, then that song probably sounded like the voice of God.

A lot of the folk revivalists in America, of which Dylan is one, listened to this avidly and got a lot of their background, information and understanding of the folk culture from this collection. The weird thing is, you listen to it casually and you'll suddenly go, What's this line? "Railroad men drink up your wine." The pay-off will be different but you'll go, I know that line — it'll be from Memphis Blues, not even a folk-type Dylan song. He's quoted lines over the years; he's not certainly stolen from it, he's just actually referring to it.

It's living tradition and he's done it in such a smart way; taking the rural poetry in these songs and adding his own bit of poetry — that's the way these songs probably existed in the first place. These songs have travelled across boundaries. You go back into the history of music and you've got John Dowland in Elizabethan times going to Denmark and taking his English blues songs over there. And of course it's all got mixed up, and when the people travelled to America they had an even bigger opportunity to get mixed up. Every kind of culture mixed up — I mean, what's Robert Zimmerman doing living in Duluth? That's in itself a story. Hls family had to get there from somewhere. There's folk music explained right there.

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Mojo, No. 51, February 1998

Elvis Costello writes about Bob Dylan's Time Out Of Mind.


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Page scan.

Photographer unknown.
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Cover and contents page.
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