The new discs by the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, Bridges to Babylon and Time Out of Mind, sound as if they were made from opposing vantage points. Bridges to Babylon is for most of its length a frantic, scattered work; no matter what words Mick Jagger is actually singing, his constant message seems to be ”Hey, kids! We’re still here! Look — we still have most of our teeth, if you count Ronnie’s comb!” By contrast, the Bob Dylan revealed on Time Out of Mind is a man out of time, in self-imposed exile from rock trends, and all the wiser and stronger for keeping his distance from their energy-sapping fickleness. Like his son but in a different sense, he’s a wallflower at the party of pop music.
That both of these ’60s-sired acts should reemerge simultaneously is but a cute quirk of the rock marketplace; in career terms, their situations could not be more different. The Stones haven’t put out a record or toured since the vainglorious Voodoo Lounge. Dylan’s last album of original compositions was 1990’s Under the Red Sky, but in the intervening time he released two fitfully superb collections of old folk and blues songs, Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993). He’s also toured with such vigorous momentum that a serious bout with heart infection earlier this year ended up seeming like the cancellation of a few dates for a momentary breather.
What these albums share is a reliance upon slow rhythm & blues balladry as a sustaining force. On Bridges, it takes the Stones too long to get to this good stuff. They spend about half of the record working shrewdly but pointlessly to connect with contemporary styles, employing Don Was, the Dust Brothers, and Black Grape’s Danny Saber to produce a few fashionably cluttered tracks against which Mick postures: as a gangsta Brit shaking a pistol at his baby in ”Gunface” or a naughty boy bragging that you’ll never make a ”Saint of Me.”
It’s not until the Dust Brothers take the Glimmer Twins into the murk of ”Might as Well Get Juiced,” however, that Jagger and Keith Richards seize command of Bridges. A stark, dense harkening back to Exile on Main Street, ”Juiced” is an oily hymn to dissolution, exhilarating in its bleakness. The emotional descent deepens on the final two, Was-produced songs, ”Thief in the Night” and ”How Can I Stop.” Both songs feature muttered, cracked crooning from Richards (and ironically sweet backup vocals from the great L.A. session man Blondie Chaplin); both songs find solace for ruined romance in a touchingly dignified R&B stoicism; both songs can stand with the most heart-slashing work the Stones have ever cut.
Dylan’s Time also concludes with its strongest material, in this case the extraordinary ”Highlands,” a 16 1/2-minute ramble across the life of a nattering na-Bob of negativity. Crooning in the voice of a guy who’s a little hard of hearing (”I’m listening to Neil Young/I gotta turn up the sound”) and who’s decided he’s a loser (”You could say I was on anything but a roll”), Dylan goes for a stroll that turns into a dream, or maybe a nightmare. On the street, ”nobody’s going anywhere”; a restaurant he enters is empty (”Must be a holiday”). The speaker in ”Highlands” sounds zonked, out of it, and resigned to it; the song, pushed along gently by Jim Dickenson’s loping electric piano, gathers cumulative force in its atmosphere of confused sadness.
With its querulous view of life, ”Highlands” circles back to the album’s opener, ”Love Sick.” No one’s ever taken that phrase more literally: ”I’m sick of love and I’m in the thick of it,” the singer snarls, as Auggie Meyers’ Vox organ prods the melody. And in case we missed the point, Dylan, the heartbroken crank, insists, ”This kind of love, I’m sick of it.” In between ”Love Sick” and ”Highlands,” bad love and looming death pervade, summoned up in verbal dead ends and a great deal of mordant humor. ”I see nothing to be gained by/Any explanation,” he sings on ”Highlands.”
Time Out of Mind — alternate title: One Headlight Gone Dead — is produced by Daniel Lanois, who, as he did on Oh Mercy, keeps Dylan’s crypt-keeper rasp prominent while surrounding it with eeriness. Lanois gives ”Cold Irons Bound” a herky-jerky shuffle beat, for example — a rhythm that skeletons might dance to in a graveyard, using a few discarded bones for percussion. (Speaking of which, the secret hero of both Time Out of Mind and Bridges is drummer Jim Keltner, who pops up regularly to yank his fellow geezers in the direction of the beat.)
Dylan’s songwriting is at once blissfully assured and gleefully uneven throughout, containing some of his most evocative lyrics and one of the worst couplets written since the death of Sylvia Plath: ”When the wind is blowin’ in your face/And the whole world is on your case.” For all his addled talk of imminent departure (”I’m breathin’ hard, standin’ at the gate/But I don’t know how much longer I can wait”), Dylan sounds lively, even playful — in no way is this album a downer. It sounds as if, at 56, he can’t wait to be a full-fledged old codger.
A decorated codger, to be sure: In December, he’ll be a Kennedy Center honoree, along with Charlton Heston, Jessye Norman, Edward Villella, and Lauren Bacall. (At the State Department dinner, will he dedicate ”Cold Irons Bound” to Al Gore?) Where Mick Jagger holds a six-shooter to the nose of a deceitful lover, Bob Dylan turns one on himself, and, under the gun — to prove himself, to make music while facing mortality — ends up with a great album. A+