Time Out Of Mind comprises eleven closely interrelated songs, all effectively the thoughts of the same narrator following the ending of a particular relationship. The same ideas are found recurring again and again throughout the songs which represent the struggles someone might go through in dealing with loss. The overall effect is to present us with a highly detailed picture of human weakness and contradiction in the face of adversity. Although the tone is despondent throughout the album, there are nevertheless hints that the flaws in the narrator’s character, which are in part responsible for his misery, might be overcome.
The first song, Love Sick, presents the effect of a former relationship on the speaker’s mind. On the one hand he claims to be love sick in the sense of being infatuated with someone who wants nothing to do with him, and on the other he is love sick in the sense that his desire for the person is making him feel ill. The narrator’s thoughts which are presented throughout the song are also a guide to his character. He comes across not just as unsuccessful in love, but weak. He’s weak in that he allows his emotions to take him over. And he’s weak in that he makes no effort to make things better for himself. In addition, reading between the lines, he comes across as duplicitous.
The narrator’s negative outlook is seen from the start:
Through streets that are dead’
It’s not of course the streets which are dead, but the narrator in a spiritual sense, in that he’s allowing himself to wallow in misery. He imposes his own feelings on things around him again when he comments:
‘And the clouds are weeping’
While the feeling of total desolation may be one not outside the listener’s experience, and therefore understandable, the listener is not likely to have much sympathy for him. From a neutral position the narrator looks as if he’s taking advantage of his state of mind, using it as an excuse for not having to acknowledge his own responsibility for his predicament. But despite his attempts to cover up his own part in his demise, he can’t help unintentionally alluding to it:
‘I spoke like a child;
You destroyed me with a smile
While I was sleeping’
He tries to appear innocent by comparing himself with a child, but fails. Instead he comes across as childish rather than childlike. He accuses the person he’s addressing of destroying him with a smile, but since he was sleeping this could not literally have been the case. He’s not so much reporting the reaction of his lover as imagining what an appropriate reaction might be. In other words he knows he fully deserves whatever criticisms are being made against him because it’s his own sub-conscious which is making them. The lines form a beautiful vignette in which the reader is invited to fill in the rest of the scene. He speaks, but the only response is a smile. He’s destroyed. There ought to be nothing destructive about a smile – it seems a kindly response. But he interprets it as destructive because he knows full well that it signifies the uncovering of his deceit.
The lines immediately preceding this suggest the nature of the deceit:
Hear someone tell a lie?’
The lie would seem to have been his own – there’s no one around when he thinks he hears it. And it may be in that he lied that he ‘spoke like a child’. It was pathetic, too easily seen through. Rather than admit he’s lied, he merely suggests that someone lied. His immaturity comes through in his unwillingness to face up to the fact that the lie was his. Given his implicitly longing to be like the lovers in the meadow, it seems likely it concerned an illicit – perhaps adulterous -liaison.
It’s particularly ironic, then, that he asks ‘Could you ever be true?’ In the light of the lie, this question would be more appropriately addressed to himself. That way the question would not be an irrelevant enquiry about the long term prospects of his lover’s fidelity, but a totally appropriate expression of exasperated regret at his own habitual unfaithfulness. Later he says ‘I wish I’d never met you’, reinforcing the idea that, whatever his virtues, constancy is not one of them.
Immediately following the lines about the lie are the following:
Did I hear someone’s distant cry?’
The cry would be a cry of anguish from the lover on discovering her betrayal. It’s a distant cry in that the narrator didn’t let it bother him; it was easy to ignore. But now that the relationship is over, it starts to impinge on his conscience. It’s this effect on his conscience which might contain the seeds of an eventual moral recovery.
One trait which characterises the narrator is inactivity. He doesn’t do anything to improve his life. He merely notices ‘lovers in the meadow’ but to no good purpose. He focuses on ‘silhouettes in the window’. These silhouettes, being at one remove from reality – mere shadows – perhaps represent his failure to focus on reality. When they’ve disappeared, he clings on to what’s left of his relationship, refusing to accept its shadowy nature. This is not to suggest he approves of his inertia. The forlorn tone suggests he realises its pointlessness, that time’s passing without his achieving anything (‘I hear the clock tick’) – but still he does nothing. He ‘wants to take to the road and plunder’, but he doesn’t get around to doing it. And he says ‘I’m trying to forget you’, but one could be forgiven for thinking he’s not trying very hard.
There’s ambiguity throughout about what the narrator’s attitude to love is. He claims to be love sick, but of course there’s really no such thing as love sickness outside medieval romance. He seems to be just fed up that things are not going the way he’d like. He comes across as wanting life to be run on his own unrealistic terms:
‘This kind of love,
I’m so sick of it’
By the end of the song, it’s not just ‘this kind of love’ which he eschews, but love generally. He tells us he’s ‘sick of love’.