Graley Herren. Dreams and Dialogues in Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. London, U.K.: Anthem Press, 2021. x + 176 pp.
REVIEW BY D. Quentin Miller, Suffolk University
I’m writing this review from Valencia, Spain, visiting my son who moved here a few months ago. Yesterday we were making our way to the stunning cathedral, which houses (believe it or not) the Holy Grail. Poking around the narrow alleyways of the old city, my wife eyed some of the tourist shops while my son was scouting out paella restaurants. I spotted a cool-looking sign down a side street: “Devil Records.” I pulled on their coats. “I’m absolutely hitting this record store,” I declared. They exchanged a knowing eye roll, clearly deciding to sit it out. Let the old man have his nostalgic fun. I stepped in and did what I’ve been doing since I was about seven years old, flipping through bins, scrutinizing the artfully designed covers, and deciding what I could afford.
I couldn’t resist this particular temptation – the devil delaying my pilgrimage to the Holy Grail – and I imagine most readers of this journal are fully with me. We know the magic of albums, but we also realize that they signify something to you and me that they don’t signify to others. Take my 22-year-old son. This morning we took a minute to share what we were working on. He tilted his head and lifted an eyebrow. “You’re reviewing a whole book about one record?” Shrug, bashful smile. Dylan Review reader, you understand, right? We’re on the same page and in the same groove. But the premise behind Grayley Herren’s Dreams and Dialogues in Dylan’s Time Out of Mind bears a little scrutiny, even between us superfans and critics.
For what is an album in the age of streaming? It’s become more a fuzzy concept than a tangible thing. If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you most definitely think of albums as events as well as solid objects, and you regard the experience of listening (and relistening) to them as something not easily recreated on Spotify. We look back at the time when an album release meant an occasion. As we assess and analyze our most important musical artists from the vinyl age, an album marks a specific moment in their evolution. An album isn’t an accident. It’s selected and arranged. It arrives when the artist, musicians, producers, and label are satisfied that it’s ready for release, the endpoint of a period of creative inspiration and hard labor. Maybe most pointedly, it marks a moment of growth, departure, or change in the trajectories of most true artists who aren’t content to repeat their early formulas. Dylan is, of course, one such artist. One might find connections between his debut album, Desire, and Rough and Rowdy Ways, but anyone reading this review would never have to think twice about which one opened with “Hurricane.”
Even the title tells us that Dreams and Dialogues in Dylan’s Time Out of Mind is a niche book. That’s not a judgment, just a statement of fact as we consider audience. This one’s for experts or advanced Dylanphiles, and definitely for academics, specifically those who peer at Dylan’s work through literary lenses. It’s unlikely that any budding Dylan scholar would start with this book, just as it’s unlikely that nascent Dylan fans would start with Time Out of Mind. It’s a testimony to the ever-growing depth and breadth of Dylan studies that a book like this one can be written, published, and read at a time when the relevance of _______ (fill in the blank here: Dylan / literature / literary-minded popular music / the humanities / true art) is menaced by ______ (fill in the blank again: social media / the Internet / late capitalism / pandemic ennui). Unbothered, Herren advances a smart, informed, clearly written, old-school argument about an album. And not the oft-celebrated Freewheelin’, Blonde on Blonde, or Blood on the Tracks, mind you, but one that might be lifted out of the bin at Devil Records and held up as an unlikely holy grail. Skeptics might not want to bother with this study if they’re of the camp, detailed by Herren in the introduction, that regards Time Out of Mind as a belabored late career effort that could never live up to the early career gems. In other words, the study is an exercise in risk-taking and deep thinking. What could be more Dylan than that?
It’s clear that Herren is a fan and even a champion of Time Out of Mind. (He acronymizes the album title to TOOM and gets a lot of mileage out of the “tomb” pun: I’m not going to do the same thing here). In an admirably clear-eyed summary of the album’s reception, he acknowledges that Dylan’s achievements can sometimes be overshadowed by critical disagreements about them. He makes his project clear: “The present book seeks to refocus attention where it belongs – on Dylan’s ambitious, inventive, provocative and dialogical art in Time Out of Mind – rather than on peripheral skirmishes” (12). If the reader is wondering, “Why this album?” Herren eventually lays that out, too. His beef is with the well-established trend to celebrate Dylan’s early work of the 60s and 70s while dismissing or diminishing the later work; he writes “This characterization is utterly false, as anyone who has paid any attention to his work over the past quarter-century would know. Dylan has produced some of the most contemplative, complex, challenging and vital work of his career since 1997, a late renaissance initiated by Time Out of Mind” (23). He clearly views the album as a watershed event in Dylan’s career, not only as a complex and worthy text but as the very origin (note the word “initiated”) of his creative rebirth. I concur, and I’m happy to see it getting attention.
So we pretty much agree on what an album is, yes? A text, in this context? Well…Herren takes liberties with the finished product that is Time Out of Mind, adding a few bonus tracks to his analysis, an act which he calls “expanding the domain” of the album (22). As he justifies this decision, he quotes Paul Williams who describes Blood on the Tracks as a “meta-work” and applies the same logic to this album, including not only the eleven songs included on Time Out of Mind but also three that were outtakes that appeared on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 and, perhaps a little less solidly, “Mississippi” which was included on the next album, “Love and Theft”. Um, we-elll, yeah, but…I reiterate my initial question: what’s an album? I really admire the focus of a study like this one, but this move unsettles me a little because it compromises the understood boundaries of the argument. If a critic borrows songs that weren’t on this album (and that ended up on another album), there’s the sense that limiting the analysis to a titled album is somewhat arbitrary. One can imagine a version of Herren’s book that does not seek to analyze every track on Time Out of Mind (plus four) as this one does, but rather that selects a number of tracks from this period and seeks coherence that way. Call it “Dylan’s Early Late-Career Renaissance” or “Dylan’s Work of the Late 1990s.” I know it’s not as punchy, but it’s more accurate.
The troublesome thing about a “meta-work” is that it’s defined by the critic rather than the artist or the reader/listener. Herren argues that “Mississippi” “fits effectively in the context of “Love and Theft” and provides a crucial link connecting the two albums. However, “Mississippi” lies even closer to the heart of Time Out of Mind, and no account of this meta-work would be complete without taking it into consideration” (21-22). But just pages before he includes the following quotation from Hibbing’s favorite son: “This record is not a blueprint. This is it. This is the way these songs should go, every single last one. This record went through different evolutions. What you hear comes through that whole maze, that labyrinth of fire that it takes to perfect the arrangement and the structure” (8). Even though Herren includes another quotation from a later interview in which Dylan is less convinced about the coherence of the record, even that quotation asserts that Time Out of Mind “held together as a collection of songs” (9). It’s pretty clear to me what Dylan might say about the move to add four more tracks that weren’t on it and call it a meta-work. In his recent study Listening to Bob Dylan, in a chapter titled “Arranging an Album,” Larry Starr shares my skepticism; he writes that Time Out of Mind “serves perfectly to illuminate the advantages of listening to a Bob Dylan album as a complete, purposeful program of individual songs.”
Okay, enough about albums (for now). The approach is equally important. In sum, Herren’s argument as laid out in the introduction is smart, well-informed, well-argued, and intriguing. He relies heavily on the number three to structure it, framing his introduction with the statement “Bob Dylan creates in threes” (1, 20). He substantiates this claim with choice quotations from Dylan as well as shrewd observations about patterns in his creative arc. He mirrors this creative principle in his analysis, dividing the Time Out of Mind meta-work into three categories and presenting evidence in triads, such as quotations from three interviews, or arguing that the pattern indicated by Dylan in his Nobel acceptance speech triangulates himself, Leadbelly, and Buddy Holly in terms reminiscent of the holy trinity. I’ll get to each of the three categories in a minute, but there are a few other noteworthy dimensions of the introductory framework that give it heft. One is a deft movement between key biographical details, the Dylan myth (often perpetuated or mischievously altered by the puckish Robert Zimmerman himself), critical pronouncements, audience reception, and finally an intellectual framework that includes psychology, religion, and experimental modern literature (notably the work of James Joyce).
This may sound like a rich cup of coffee, but it’s mellowed by Herren’s prose style, which is clear, accessible, and enthusiastic, even while advancing sophisticated ideas about transfiguration and metempsychosis. We dive pretty deep here, even in the introduction, but Herren doesn’t let go of our hand and force us to swim on our own. I found particularly intriguing the notion of dreams (gleaned in the title) as a valid inroad into Dylan’s art in general and this album (I’ll go back to calling it that) in particular. Herren counts sixty-five Dylan tracks over the course of his career that “contain the root-word ‘dream’” and traces a career-long pattern that constitutes “an aesthetic of transformational art modeled after dreams” (17, 18). This dimension of the argument had me bobbing my head, eager for more. I’ve often focused on dream imagery when teaching some early tracks like “Gates of Eden,” but have never considered the topic with Herren’s level of breadth or sophistication. He uses the lyrics from “Series of Dreams,” an outtake from Oh, Mercy (better add it to the meta-work), to cue up the analysis to follow: “Time Out of Mind represents a series of dreams. The album is Dylan’s most concerted experiment with enlisting dreams in the service of art. He uses dreams for content, drawing from a vast rag and bone shop of intertextual references stored in the unconscious” (19). Whose unconscious? Not Dylan’s, or not exactly. Herren views the dreamer as a “protagonist” who reproduces many of the tropes recognizable throughout Dylan’s career, but declares that the protagonist “is personal, if not strictly autobiographical” and concludes, “Time Out of Mind sometimes appears as a portrait of failure – the dreamer’s failure – but the portrait itself, as painted by Dylan, is a major artistic success” (19). This summary quotation is a good example of the author’s authority, grace, and excitement about the subject at hand. I imagine most readers who had understood the references and followed the argument through the introduction would be eager, as I was, to plunge into the close readings at this point.
So here we go. The first category Herren addresses is murder ballads, in the close company of a type of character Dylan has engaged with over his career: “lawbreakers, rebels, and desperadoes” (26). The argument rearranges most of the tracks on the album to suggest that the narrator, motivated by his desire to hunt down and kill his lost love, becomes a fugitive, is arrested, imprisoned, and executed with a dying wish to be redeemed or to receive mercy in this world or the next, knowing that it will be unfulfilled. The key, Herren reminds us, to accepting this interpretation is to remember that Dylan’s speaker is not a literal killer, but a dreamer. His disturbing nocturnal visions are the substance of the narrative. Herren also reminds us that Dylan and the dreamer-protagonist of the album are not the same person, but they “do have one important thing in common: they both know a hell of a lot of folk and blues songs” (27). Herren provides a quick and effective background on the murder ballad genre and Dylan’s previous forays into it, acknowledging that the genre can descend into blatant misogyny and using that observation to address Dylan’s uneven record on depictions of women. He keeps the focus on dreaming, though, as an aesthetic motif rather than as an occasion for psychoanalysis. He’s keen to remind us of the crucial distinction between artist and protagonist: “Dylan is a master swimmer gliding through the sea of madness in which his dreamer drowns” (37). This analysis attaches itself to one of the outtakes, “Dreaming of You,” which, Herren suggests, perfectly captures the crux of his argument, though it is “inexplicably” left off the album (37). He springboards to “Make You Feel My Love” at that moment, reframing a song that many of Dylan’s champions love to hate for its sweet, cliched, anodyne triteness. Hardly, says Herren. Within the context of the murder ballad analysis, this song is menacing and creepy. Placed between his analyses of the more overtly sinister tracks “Love Sick,” “Can’t Wait,” and “‘Til I Fell In Love With You,” the argument sticks. Herren is a literary scholar, so the lyrics are tantamount to his analysis, but he does manage to address musical concerns, too, including the arrangements, the Psycho-like sounds of the organ (“four staccato stabs”) at the opening of “Love Sick,” and the distinct rasp of Dylan’s voice (“estranged and alien”) (34).
As the murder ballad chapter approached its conclusion, the centrifugal force of the argument left me feeling a little dizzy, like someone added a healthy pour of tequila into the rich cup of coffee that is the argument. I’m not complaining – I like both espresso and hard liquor – but here I felt the need for more patience. Herren’s close readings of some of the more challenging and enduring tracks on Time Out of Mind – “Standing in the Doorway,” “Not Dark Yet,” “Trying to Get to Heaven,” and “Highlands” – are perceptive and convincing, and he uses them to good effect to conclude the argument about the murder ballad tradition, but they’re surrounded with a whirlwind of allusions to everything from fairy tales to canonical literature to Dylan’s own songs to such a degree that I wanted the author to slow down a bit and sink even deeper into the lyrics he’s so good at analyzing. The book is on the short side for an academic study, so I don’t think anything would have to be cut to make room.
The next chapter covers Herren’s second category, religious allegory. The frame here involves a good bit of effort defining the term, especially since Dylan once explicitly claimed that Time Out of Mind did not employ allegory. “I have given that up,” our hero declared in an interview with Edna Gunderson (54). Like hell you have, Herren rejoins. I’m persuaded by Herren’s inclination to “trust the tale” rather than the teller here because he works so hard and so carefully to define allegory, whereas Dylan in the interview writes it off as mere “philosophical dogma” (57, 54). Plus, as we know, it’s dangerous business to take Dylan’s interviews at face value. Herren weaves a web connecting a literary tradition from the medieval type of soul-struggle called “psychomachia” to Othello to Moby-Dick in order to argue for this album’s place in that tradition.
Psychomachia is one of (you guessed it) three forms of allegory Herren identifies in Dylan’s work, the other two being personification and intertextual identification with an allegorical figure. The first and third categories are the most prevalent on Time Out of Mind, and Herren begins the chapter with a somewhat lengthy establishment of Dylan’s allegorizing early in his career through readings of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Shelter from the Storm,” and “Where Are You Tonight” among others. It takes ten pages to get to Time Out of Mind, or rather to one of the outtakes, “Red River Shore,” which is the author’s entry point. He lingers on this “undeniably stellar song” for quite some time – about seven pages, with plenty of connections to earlier and later songs peppered in – which is the type of sustained analysis I was craving at the end of the preceding chapter (62). Moses is the key figure of intertextual identification here: Herren concludes his analysis by calling it “Dylan’s Mosaic mosaic” (69). (Clever!) This reading sets the table for a diverse set of inquiries into the album’s other allegorical features, which are more free-ranging and combinatory than the way the murder ballad reading worked in the previous chapter (i.e. as a continuous narrative, told out of order). The spiritual pilgrimage is one dimension, but without the customary redemption at the end. The biblical figures Herren initially showcases here are Job and his tormenter, Satan, who provide ways to reframe some of the tracks he contextualized with the murder ballad tradition earlier. The separate contexts are opportunities to go deeper into the analysis, and indeed, Herren refers to them as “levels” (74, 78). The overall argument takes on breadth as well as depth as Herren goes into some tracks that did not get as much play in chapter two such as “Cold Irons Bound.”
But the depth is more striking, especially as Herren recasts two central, weighty songs from Time Out of Mind – “Not Dark Yet” and “Standing in the Doorway” – as allegories that involve Judas and Jesus, especially Jesus as depicted in Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ. Always keeping the context of dreams in sight, Herren’s argument is especially rich here as he stays close to the texts at hand and provides a way of reading that is both an alternative to his earlier readings and complementary to them. Certainly, Dylan’s best songs can and should benefit from approaches from multiple contexts. A murderer about to be executed and Jesus perishing on the cross are clearly two different types, but both stare down the same spiritual dilemma. The chapter concludes by revisiting one of the long tracks considered in the earlier chapter, “Highlands,” with an emphasis on the ongoing pilgrimage that Dylan allegorizes. (Surprisingly, there’s no reference to the Never Ending Tour in that context). Herren’s ultimate point is that the Time Out of Mind-era Dylan has moved into allegory and away from binary moralism (good vs. evil, serving the devil or the Lord, etc.).
Not done yet, but we’re getting there. Herren’s third contextual level involves race in America, a critical frame he describes as “intertwined with and yet distinct from the murder ballads and religious allegory levels of meaning” (91). I was just about to scratch my head about the relationship when he explained it this way: “The recurring motif of a man searching desperately for a woman – a motif that suggests a predatory stalker and killer viewed from one vantage point, and a pilgrim on a religious quest seen from a parallax view – works on a third level as emblematic of the African American search for freedom, justice, equality, and dignity” (91). My scalp remained a little itchy, for this is a stretch, but I was willing to press on. Dylan’s engagement with the struggle for civil rights vis-à-vis the folk/blues tradition is a bit more evident and accessible than the critical frameworks required for the first two chapters: safe to assume most readers know more about racial inequality than metempsychosis. Herren’s focus in setting up this chapter is on the riskiness of Dylan, or any white artist, representing the lives and experiences of African Americans. This is an important inquiry, and Herren approaches it with clarity and sensitivity. His conclusion is neither that white artists should never tread on this ground nor that cultural appropriation is everyone’s right, but rather that context is everything. “Hybridity” is a goal, “essentialism” is a danger. Herren draws from some prominent sources – Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Ralph Ellison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Paul Gilroy, Zadie Smith – to help navigate these troubled waters.
There’s more than a little anxiety around this touchy subject which spotlights the ethics of the white artist speaking about the Black experience. I do think thorough interrogations of this subject in Dylan are important. There are many examples throughout his early career in which he inhabits this space, such as “Oxford Town” or “Hurricane” in addition to the ones that Herren analyzes or alludes to. As applied to Time Out of Mind, though, it was the hardest to see in terms of the overall argument, and this chapter – the longest in the study – was the least persuasive of the three. During my first readthrough of this book I occasionally wondered if what we really have here is three books, three separate contexts for reading Dylan, each of which could be even more probing than this one if the author had focused on Dylan’s entire career rather than just one album/ meta-work. In fact, Herren does pull quite a bit from Dylan’s earlier and later work in his analysis: this chapter opens with a lengthy consideration of 1962’s “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” which Dylan never included on an album and which he later denounced as a “bullshit song” (96). While it’s a fine analysis, it struck me that we’re a long way from the purported focus on the album that initiates Dylan’s late-career renaissance. Herren continues his analysis with a sustained look at “Blind Willie McTell,” another bootleg left off Infidels, a decade-and-a-half before the album under consideration. Herren spends much more time setting up his reading of Time Out of Mind in the context of race than he does analyzing the songs on Time Out of Mind: the first thirty-two pages of the chapter are buildup, the last sixteen include close readings of two songs from the album, one of which is not on the album.
Herren’s reading of “Trying to Get to Heaven” in the context of the fugitive slave dream-level is convincing, but brief compared to some of his earlier close readings. He moves into “Mississippi,” which, as we know, is not actually on the album (though Herren is so thoroughly convinced that it should have been that he starts one sentence about it this way: “Unlike other songs on Time Out of Mind…” ). I’m not sure the stretch to include “Mississippi” pays off, even setting aside my reservations about including it in the meta-work: I found it the least focused of all the close readings in the study, which are generally excellent. If it were not included, that would mean that this whole dimension of the argument – the dream-level from the perspective of a fugitive slave – really only applies to one song on Time Out of Mind. This is at odds with Herren’s claim that “Dylan draws deeply” from his understanding of America’s racist history “time and again in Time Out of Mind” (90). Herren does scatter a few quotations from other songs on the album, but in terms of sustained analysis, there’s just not enough evidence to convince me.
So I’m back where I started, worried about the line between a study of a single album and a study that has broader applications for a deeper understanding of Dylan over the course of his career. This final chapter is the one that leaves my brow furrowed since it has the least to do with Time Out of Mind and the most to do with a context that demands further exploration in Dylan more generally. Granted, it’s not as though the topic hasn’t been broached before. But Herren works very hard to create the context here and I think he owes himself more space to substantiate it with additional close readings of songs from the album under consideration, if it’s possible to do so. This chapter also stands in place of a conclusion to the entire argument. My brow might have relaxed a little if there were a standard concluding chapter reflecting on the three “levels” of the dreamer at the end of the book to close the frame that opened it in the introduction, but the argument about the race dimension concludes the book a little abruptly.
My conclusion, then, is that Herren says quite a bit, and says it well enough that it warrants the attention of other critics, and yet I think he has more to say, especially about race, and not just how it applies to Time Out of Mind. I hope it’s clear at the end of this lengthy review that what might seem like my fussiness over how an album is defined is actually an earnest debate about whether Dylan’s massive body of work is best approached in terms of individual texts (be they songs or albums) or whether it’s inevitable to make connections that span his songbook. In addition to the four songs Herren adds to the meta-work, I count more than thirty additional songs that he quotes from during the analysis. This indicates to me that Dylan’s enormous oeuvre nearly forces us to make connections across it, or, put differently, that he creates and recreates his own contexts that are in conversation with the contexts we critics bring to the work. What’s an album? In the case of the astonishing sixty-year career of the world’s most celebrated songwriter, a fragment. Or it’s a coherent text. Here it’s something in-between. I found the approaches involving murder ballads and religious allegory engaging and insightful about Time Out of Mind, but the approach involving race left me hoping that the topic will be more broadly applied and more thoroughly explored in subsequent work.
 Larry Starr, Listening to Bob Dylan (Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 2021), 90.
 See, for one example, Mike Marqusee’s Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art (New Press, 2003).