In retrospect, Bob Dylan‘s 1997 comeback with Time Out of Mind wasn’t so much a remarkable recovery as the shouldn’t-have-been-so-surprising return of an artist who had been talked out of several times over the previous three decades but never stayed down for long . It happened in the 60s, 70s and 80s, so why should the 90s be any different?
But it was various. Time Out of Mind was a then-late-career triumph, hailed as an instant masterpiece and the 56-year-old Dylan’s best album since the 1975s Blood on the tracks. Its reputation was further strengthened by follow-ups “Love and Theft” (2001) and Modern times (2006) proved to be equally good. Dylan hadn’t experienced this kind of creative run since the 60s.
Looking back at the album a quarter of a century later, one of the first things you notice is that the 1993 track The world went wrong to Time Out of Mind is more stable and linear than originally noted. The stripped down blues and folk covers on The world went wrong was not too far removed from the new originals, mined from similar territory, on Dylan’s 30th album; they were just formed from a more introspective perspective with a full band and better production.
Before the LP’s release, but after the early sessions in 1997, Dylan was diagnosed with a serious heart infection. It seemed that he was knocking on heaven’s door. Despite the timeline, a sense of his mortality still found its way into the sessions, which is even more evident in the five-disc, 60-track Fragments – Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996-1997): The Bootleg Series Vol. 17a recap of the era compiled from early versions, outtakes, live songs and a new remix of the original 1997 album.
While this period has been covered, in part, before the 2008 survey The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unissued 1989–2006, Fragments has more in common with the newer deep dives The Bootleg Series editions have undertaken: several recordings show the birth and growth of new era classics “Love Sick”, “Not Dark Yet” and “Highlands”; a trio of non-album cuts from earlier 1996 recordings with the producer Daniel Lanois highlights sessions in smaller groups. Concert versions from 1998 to 2001 are expected to take several of the songs in different directions. (Incidentally, Disc Five is the bonus CD originally included in the deluxe edition of the previous volume.)
As he has done before and after these sessions in the mid-’90s, Dylan tinkers with rhythm, vocal inflection, lyrics and tempo, adjusting the tone and even the entire perspectives of some songs. Early recordings of “Mississippi” (which eventually ended up on “Love and Theft” ) and “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” are featured here in more straightforward versions without the occasional sonic clutter heard on the finished LPs. While not necessarily better (although in some cases they probably are), they unfold without the atmosphere that is so much a part of Time Out of Mind. And great leftovers like “Red River Shore” prove that Dylan, who struggled for more than a decade to come up with enough good material to fill albums, had overcome an obstacle.
Whose Fragments – Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996-1997) doesn’t seem as important as some others The Bootleg Series volumes dedicated to individual albums, e.g Vol. 11‘s division of The basement bands or 14‘s Blood on the tracks dissection, some of it has to do with when it was recorded. Time Out of Mind arrived at an equally complicated time in Dylan’s career, but not as much at stake in 1997 as it did in 1967 and 1974. And let’s face it, the sessions weren’t as storied as the earlier ones, so without the usual Dylan myth-making that accompanies the package, the music is just a tad less exciting. However, the story of his ’90s comeback would be less complete without it.
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