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The album Time Out of Mind (1997) is well-known for being one of Bob Dylan's darker albums, in which the songs, instead of depicting just the image of the American Folk Hero, tend to also depict a time extreme desperation. Even in the epic "Highlands," though of poetic genius, is darker than other Dylan epics, such as "Visions of Johanna" or even the song "Hurricane."
I believe that the two songs, which show the most of this emotion being used at any one given time, are "Trying to Get to Heaven" and "Not Dark Yet." The lyricism shows a very extreme desperation, to the point that the speaker has seemingly given up, and yet both songs have different functions. "Not Dark Yet" seems to function as the explanation of the emotional state, and "Trying to Get to Heaven" is the want to relay this to someone else, with the hope of getting something out of them in reply. Using the same ideas, "Not Dark Yet" is the events leading up to the apocalypse, and "Trying to Get to Heaven" is the actual event itself.
This article is going to examine the two songs, finding out exactly what state of mind the speaker is in, and how these two songs have in fact, two different functions, but are part of the same story.
The question is what kind of story they're a part of. And the answer to that question is that they are both part of the semi-suicidal story, that coats the album Time Out of Mind. When exploring these two songs, we'll look at how really—they're both relaying the same message about life and how the speaker may be accomplished, but is completely dissatisfied. This seems to be what is called the "apocalyptic nightmare" in these two songs, since the emotions are put through the surrounding area's imagery, rather than just the emotions of the speaker relayed to the listener.
So we've got various things here:
1. The Language of Depression—the literal relaying of the main emotion as depression
2. The Dissatisfaction— the achievement, but melancholy of the speaker about his own life
3. The Apocalyptic Nightmare—the way in which the depression is conveyed through the strangeness and discomfort in the surrounding area
We'll look at how each are conveyed to the listener, and how they are similarities between the two songs—they really are telling the same story.
Part 1—The Language of Depression
The first question we have is:
How do the two songs convey the depression in the speaker through pure emotion?
Well, in the song "Trying to Get to Heaven," the first encounter with depression we have is the memory of the receiver of the song:
"Every day your memory grows dimmer
It doesn't haunt me like it did before..."
The fact that there is something on the mind of the speaker that is "haunting" him would obviously have an impact on how the rest of the song is heard by the listener, and the way the song is conveyed by the speaker. But, in the song "Not Dark Yet," we've got the same "haunting" in terms of metaphorical "scars" that the speaker has and won't heal. This probably suggests that the song "Not Dark Yet" is set slightly earlier than "Trying to Get to Heaven":
"Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal."
The way in which depression is conveyed is most likely through the regret the narrator/speaker is feeling, to do with either the memory of someone else, or the fact that they wronged someone else—it is "haunting" them metaphorically, and has hurt them in return.
What always surprises me about these two songs is the way in which the speaker conveys "nowhere" and "anywhere" as legitimate places. The speaker cannot be "anywhere" and so they go and walk through or towards "nowhere." This suggests that the feeling of depression in the speaker forces him out of his original space, and into a new one, in which he is completely unfamiliar with himself.
In the song "Not Dark Yet" this is presented as:
"There’s not even room enough to be anywhere..."
And from that crowded space, the speaker moves and becomes more unfamiliar with himself, he experiences the negative of "anywhere," which is "nowhere" in the song "Trying to Get to Heaven":
"I've been walking through the middle of nowhere..."
Since "Not Dark Yet" is set slightly before "Trying to Get to Heaven" we can assume that the "any" in the "anywhere" is carelessness, and the feeling of being "anyone" in the crowd. Whereas, the "no" in "nowhere" is the feeling of the negative, moving towards the more melancholic mood.
The feeling of "losing everything" is evident in the two songs as a reason for the speaker's depression as well. In the song "Not Dark Yet" it is more of a self sustained "burden"—suggesting that the speaker has done something wrong in the past, and now has to bear whatever it is for the rest of his life:
"Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear..."
But in "Trying to Get to Heaven" he concentrates not on the fact that he's lost everything, which probably caused this burden, but on the fact that he's "lost a little more." This suggests that he's even lost the burden he once carried—the feeling of nothingness and emptiness is possibly very difficult to fathom for him, and he'd rather bear the burden than feel so lost:
"When you think that you lost everything
You find out you can always lose a little more..."
Both of the songs present a stillness in the last parts of the song, that suggest that the speaker is either about to go to sleep or has come to terms with themselves. In "Not Dark Yet," it makes it part of the emotional, whereas in "Trying to Get to Heaven"—it is quite clearly a place; the parlor. The line from "Not Dark Yet" that corresponds to this is:
"I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from..."
The final line states that he doesn't understand what he's doing there, but he was trying to get away from (possibly the depression itself) an emotional state, and is now standing completely still within a familiar place. If it was unfamiliar, we would still be in the "nowhere" state—which we are not. In "Trying to Get to Heaven," the place is named and therefore, is known to the speaker:
"Gonna sleep down in the parlor
And relive my dreams
I'll close my eyes and I wonder
If everything is as hollow as it seems..."
Thus, we have a connection between the two songs, one being more emotional than the other, but both telling two halves to the same story of depression. Ultimately, they end in the same place, possibly in the same place that they began—we may never know.
Part 2—The Dissatisfaction
There seems to be an underlying theme of dissatisfaction in these songs, as if the speaker feels as if their life has achieved very little. It tinges the songs with this near-suicidal image, and something very existential. It gives the listener more of an insight into the true emotions of the speaker, and the extent to which the depression has taken hold of him. "Not Dark Yet" seems to present this as something that is coming on:
"It's not dark yet, but it's getting there..."
The refrain shows us that this emotion is still coming on. It is definitely going in that direction and this is mainly why "Not Dark Yet" is the first part of the story of depression, and "Trying to Get to Heaven" is the second part. In "Trying to Get to Heaven," it is a certainty:
"I'm trying to get to heaven before they close the door."
This presents the "dark" of "Not Dark Yet" has definitely happened because someone who is "trying to get to heaven" must be suicidal—for there is no other reason why they'd want to rush into death. The obvious spiritual connotations of "Trying to Get to Heaven," and its refrain are presented through the want to get to heaven though suicide is a sin—so where is the speaker? Is he sick? Is he overwhelmed? Is he suggesting he'll die of a broken heart? Well, we may not know—but we know that "Not Dark Yet" leads straight into the spirituality of "Trying to Get to Heaven" with the ominous lyric at the end of the song:
"Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer..."
The dissatisfaction comes from the fact that he cannot control these emotions. In the song "Not Dark Yet," this is presented as something that is not quite there yet, but is definitely going to be there. There is nothing the speaker can do about it. In "Trying to Get to Heaven" this feeling is already there and now, the speaker is doomed to walk "through the middle of nowhere."
There are numerous references to the dissatisfaction of the lack of control getting progressively worse in "Not Dark Yet"—one of the main ones being:
"I just don’t see why I should even care..."
He states this because there is obviously nothing he can do now, since it may not be dark enough yet, "but it's getting there." However this letter was written, he can no longer return to the "she" in the song, seeing as his emotional state is going to get worse and he is fully aware of it. In "Trying to Get to Heaven," this emotion is exemplified but again, the speaker is dissatisfied—more or less, with what the emotion has done to him. He degrades the emotion, calling it "feeling bad" instead of what it actually is—a near-suicidal melancholy, a sheer want for death:
"I'm just going down the road feeling bad..."
The degrading of the emotion could represent one of two things. The first thing it represents is the speaker's unwillingness to accept that he has this feeling of depression, and the second is the speaker's want to resist the emotion itself, even though he knows it isn't possible.
Part 3—The Apocalyptic Nightmare
This is a great theme to add to the depression and melancholy of the songs, because it conveys the building emotions through the surroundings, rather than the emotions of the speaker being simply relayed to us. The first and most obvious image is the fallacy of "heat." Things getting "hotter" and increasing in heat most probably means that the earth around the speaker is degrading and rotting. "Not Dark Yet" presents this as an isolated event to begin with:
"Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away..."
The speaker is finding it difficult to sleep, and so the "heat" that is rotting the earth around the speaker seems to symbolize some sort of insomnia. This is something completely inescapable, as the passage of time seems to be too strange for the speaker to keep up with. In the first line it is suggested to be very slow and then, in the second, too quick. In "Trying to Get to Heaven" there is another reference to heat:
"The air is getting hotter
There's a rumbling in the skies
I've been wading through the high muddy water
With the heat rising in my eyes..."
The heat seems to be within the speaker. Something that is reflected by the rotting earth around him—especially the "rumbling" and "muddy" atmospheres. Since this has now had more of an impact on the surrounding area than the first song, it suggests that this song succeeds "Not Dark Yet" in its imagery as well.
The image of rivers is very important in these songs since in "Not Dark Yet" the speaker states:
"I’ve followed the river and I got to the sea..."
He suggests that he followed one of the rivers, by walking down the same road over and over again (which seems to be a recurring theme in the song as well) and made it to the sea. It is quite possible that he did not want to be at the sea as again, it is a familiar place—it is something that is "anywhere" and not "nowhere." The sea is familiar to everyone. The speaker is meant to move from the "anywhere" to the "nowhere," and so decides to redo this walk in the next song and disappear. He doesn't seem to care where he ends up in "Trying to Get to Heaven," being strangely specific about New Orleans, but not being specific about what he's going to do there:
"I'm going down the river
Down to New Orleans
They tell me everything is gonna be all right
But I don't know what "all right" even means..."
It seems that following a river to get to the sea is still too "normal" for the speaker, since every river leads to the sea. Whereas, when the speaker goes to New Orleans, it seems like he's really lost his mind, since most would actually follow a river to get to the sea. Therefore, anything that is "normal" in terms of events and how they're supposed to go seems not to make any sense to the speaker anymore.
The next image is the parlor in "Trying to Get to Heaven." This can be one of two things. It is either somewhere the speaker has gone especially to get away from something, or it is somewhere the speaker has returned to in order to get away from something. Most likely, it is the latter if we are to think that these two songs are part of the same story. Two of the lines that give away what the speaker is doing in the parlour from "Trying to Get to Heaven" in "Not Dark Yet" are:
"I was born here and I’ll die here against my will..."
This line definitely suggests that the speaker has returned to the place, they had either previously spent special moments there, or had actually been literally born and raised there. The fact they're going to die there against their will possibly means that they didn't want to come back, but since the "darkness" is "getting there" and they can't control it—it is reasonable to suggest that they can't control this either. The story is ultimately about running out of this control. The lack of control also displayed by the fact that the speaker doesn't remember why he's returned to the parlor:
"I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from..."
The speaker slowly losing control over how "dark" his emotions get, symbolized especially by his return to the parlor he was born in, now he'll die there. When he dies, this will be the ultimate darkness because "it's getting there." Thus, suggesting the speaker is most likely dying already.
In "Trying to Get to Heaven," it is evident that he has gone to the parlor not only because he can't control why he's going there, but also because he's gone to speak to someone—the whole of the song addresses the "you" instead of the song "Not Dark Yet" that addresses the "she". Suggesting that the whole song is set in the parlor and is being relayed to someone else, someone he has gone to see. The parlor being a part of a bigger residency in which he states he'll sleep in the parlor—maybe death is quickly approaching:
"Gonna sleep down in the parlor
And relive my dreams
I'll close my eyes and I wonder
If everything is as hollow as it seems..."
With this return to the parlor residency, we finally get the sleep of the speaker which has been a common problem since the start of "Not Dark Yet," with the clear insomnia of it being "too hot to sleep". The fact the speaker can finally sleep must mean that he is now at rest, or could mean that death is now approaching. He didn't want to be here, as it is against his will, but he knows he's dying and there's nothing he can do about it. He's just trying to get to heaven before they close the door.
Whether this is the story of a suicide, a broken heart, or the cure for insomnia, these two songs are a part of the same story. It seems to put itself forward as the beginning and the end of the story of a man moving from the familiar and the normal, to something that is unfamiliar and "nowhere" or abnormal. The roads he takes, the rivers he walks down, the heat of sleep, and the parlor add to the feeling that he may be recalling two parts to the same story—the question is, if "Not Dark Yet" begins it and "Trying to Get to Heaven" ends it; where's the middle?