How Bob Dylan Confronted Mortality on “Not Dark Yet”

In 1997, before Bob Dylan released Time Out of Mind, he thought he was going to die.

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A life-threatening heart infection put him in the hospital, and when he recovered, he said, “I really thought I’d be seeing Elvis soon.”

Time Out of Mind, his 30th studio album, is a collection of morbid tales and tender love songs, something only Dylan could cobble into a brilliantly cohesive work. The album was partly inspired by Jerry Garcia’s death at 53, which troubled Dylan and left him despairing over his own mortality.

The album’s first single, “Not Dark Yet,” is a world-weary tale of scars and cynicism written as Dylan exited a long period of creative uncertainty. Dylan called these songs “the dread realities of life.”

He’d been musically lost in the wilderness while he searched philosophically and religiously for an identity. Producer Daniel Lanois led his previous (fleeting) comeback, Oh Mercy, in 1989. So, he convened again with Lanois. Following a period of sporadic output, Dylan wrote more frequently and began the painstaking process of making one of his best records.

Standing in the Shadows, Waiting for the Parade to Pass

“Not Dark Yet” is Dylan facing the twilight of life, but it’s also a tale of spiritual death. The song follows a man slowly giving in to nihilism. However, Dylan’s misty hymn sounds hopeful as the instruments blend into each other like the hazy memories of fading years.

Shadows are fallin’, and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, and time is runnin’ away
I feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there

Dylan was 55 when he recorded Time Out of Mind. Meanwhile, he and his band were touring endlessly on the appropriately named Never Ending Tour.

He’d written many death-beset songs before, including “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” but one’s view of death changes when you’re nearer to it, and “Not Dark Yet” crosses the Rubicon between abstract and concrete.

I was born here, and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m movin’, but I’m standin’ still
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there

Daniel Lanois

Daniel Lanois produced Time Out of Mind, recording more than a dozen musicians performing live to create the album’s swampy feel. It doesn’t sound like an orchestra, but it does sound orchestral, like an oversized band in a sweltering church. The music on “Not Dark Yet” is given the heavy task of resurrecting a broken man’s spirit.

Lanois and drummer Tony Mangurian began the album sessions in New York by recording percussion parts over Charley Patton’s Delta blues, then removed Patton’s recordings and created loops inspired by Beck. Dylan heard Odelay and said, “I’d love to make a record like that kid Beck.”


Engineer Mark Howard had converted an old 1940s theater—the Teatro in Oxnard, California—into a recording studio. There, Dylan recorded demos in September and October 1996.  

Tensions brewed as Dylan aimed for simplicity and often battled with his producer while the musicians struggled to follow the ever-changing arrangements. Part of the magic of Time Out of Mind is the hesitancy of the band—one chord away from crashing into each other. “Not Dark Yet” went through many mutations and changed keys before reaching its final, haunting destination.

However, Lanois’ methods added sophistication to the complexity of Dylan’s lyrics. His cinematic soundscapes frame the songs in a murky portrait, making it sound like Dylan is singing from another dimension. The blurry album cover photo, snapped by Lanois, looks like the album sounds.

A Triumphant Return

Director Michael B. Borofsky filmed the video for “Not Dark Yet” in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s a montage of Dylan and his band performing at the New Daisy Theatre on Beale Street with images from around the city.

The video followed Dylan’s triumph at the Grammys, where Time Out of Mind won three times, including for Album of the Year. It marked a comeback for Dylan, who’d struggled with inconsistent releases—his previous two albums were collections of traditional folk songs.  

Leaving the Corner

Dylan said recording Time Out of Mind “was me getting back and fighting my way out of the corner.” He found inspiration in a modern artist like Beck but also connected to the past with unadorned blues recordings.

He faced internal bleakness on “Not Dark Yet” but emerged with a spectral album, giving him another life. He told Rolling Stone, “People say the record deals with mortality—my mortality for some reason! Well, it doesn’t deal with my mortality. It maybe just deals with mortality in general. It’s one thing that we all have in common, isn’t it?”

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Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI

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