In hindsight, Bob Dylan‘s 1997 comeback with Time Out of Mind wasn’t so much a remarkable rebound as it was a shouldn’t-have-been-so-surprising return of an artist who had been counted out several times over the preceding 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 different. 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 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. Its reputation was further bolstered when follow-ups “Love and Theft” (2001) and Modern Times (2006) turned out to be just as good. Dylan hadn’t experienced this sort of creative run since the ’60s.
Looking back at the album a quarter century later, one of the first things you notice is that the trajectory from 1993’s World Gone Wrong to Time Out of Mind is more steady and linear than initially noted. The stripped-down blues and folk covers on World Gone Wrong weren’t too far removed from the new originals, mined from a 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 1997 sessions wrapped, Dylan was diagnosed with a serious heart infection. He was, it seemed, knockin’ 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. 17, a summation of the era pieced together from early versions, outtakes, live songs and a new remix of the original 1997 album.
While this period has been covered, in part, before on the 2008 survey The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989–2006, Fragments has more in common with the deep dives more recent Bootleg Series editions have undertaken: Multiple takes chart 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 producer Daniel Lanois highlights smaller-group sessions. Concert versions spanning 1998 through 2001 expectedly take several of the songs in different directions. (Disc Five, incidentally, is the bonus CD originally included in the earlier volume’s deluxe edition.)
As he’s done before and after these mid-’90s sessions, Dylan tinkers with rhythm, vocal inflection, lyrics and pace, adjusting tone and even entire perspectives of some songs. Early takes 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 they’re not necessarily better (though in some cases they arguably are), these takes unfold without the atmosphere that’s such a huge part of Time Out of Mind. And great leftovers like “Red River Shore” prove Dylan, who struggled for more than a decade to come up with enough good material to fill albums, had overcome a hurdle.
If Fragments – Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996-1997) doesn’t seem as essential as some other Bootleg Series volumes dedicated to single albums, like Vol. 11‘s breakdown of The Basement Tapes or 14‘s Blood on the Tracks dissection, some of that 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 seemed at stake in 1997 as it did in 1967 and 1974. And, let’s face it, the sessions weren’t as fabled as those earlier ones, so without the usual Dylan mythmaking accompanying the package, the music is just a tad less exciting. The story of his ’90s comeback would be less complete without it, though.
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