For me, “Not Dark Yet” is the best thing Bob Dylan had done in ages, this perfect enigma from a guy who’s made a career of such sleights of hand. An edgy post-modern lament downshifted into quiet Civil War balladry, “Not Dark Yet,” remains a riddle — and maybe that’s the very definition of good art: It’s something that you never quite figure out.
At first, when it appeared as the lead single for 1997′s perhaps over-celebrated Time Out of Mind, I was thinking that this was Dylan looking back on his own life, on his many accomplishments, and seeing more to be done. Dylan, issuing his first original songs since 1990′s Under the Red Sky, had been slowed by a life-threatening illness. So, he realizes, now more than ever, that the clock is ticking. In a larger sense, he’s a guy, in keeping with the title of the Grammy award-winning album from which it came, who is out of time. Dylan is both misunderstood by a new generation, and also moving into the last third of his life.
That this song was appeared just as word spread that Dylan was suffering from an infection of the sac around the heart only heightened a sense of looming mortality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, awards and accolades rushed in. Turns out, though, the album had already been recorded and mixed before Dylan’s health scare. Still, shadows are falling, and time is running away. His soul might have been hardened through a series of heartbreaks and disappointments. Certainly, his sense of humanity. He has a true love, but not someone he can trust. Yet, even in death, he says he’ll be buried against his will.
I went deeper, started thinking “Not Dark Yet” was a reworking of the passion of Christ. After all, Dylan twists the chorus — it’s not dark yet — into a flinty ambition at the end of a long, faithful journey. He quickly adds: “But, it’s getting there.” Like a resolute call to action, a testimony of faith. It’s hard to know. After all, we’re talking about an artist as complex, and simultaneously as offhanded, as Dylan — a creative force who frustrates and fascinates with equal consistency and depth.
So, I double back again. Maybe it’s about a girl. An easy guess. After all, almost everything is about a girl, right? Dylan is a guy who has written for years — either explicitly (“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”) or implicitly (some would say, every other song he ever wrote concerning a relationship) — about his lingering ardor, lasting misunderstandings and towering confusion over the loss of Sara Lowndes, whom he married in 1965 and then built a family with before a subsequent divorce. That’s what it feels like in concert these days. Like a song about losing something that never, ever returns.
“Behind every beautiful thing,” Dylan sings here, channeling John Keats while coasting over a sympathetic sound bed of keyboards, soft rhythm and guitar produced by Daniel Lanois, “there’s been some kind of pain.” His voice is barely above a hush at times, like a confession for those who still care to listen. Or a secret meant to be unfolded later. “Not Dark Yet” is both, to my ears. In fact, every time I listen to this track, I think I hear something else. It’s the kind of eccentric, stubbornly intelligent side we’ve come to expect from Bob Dylan. And this time, and who knows how many more times there’ll be, he delivered.