“I’ve been all around the world, boys, And I’m tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door.” – Bob Dylan, “Trying To Get To Heaven” From Time Out Of Mind
Anybody whose hung around B&V long enough probably knows I love a good box set. I love when an artist opens up the vaults and shares some of the unreleased music he’s got stashed away in there. Sometimes there are hidden gems packed away deep in the vaults – like Neil Young always seems to have – sometimes it’s just a great glimpse into the creative process behind an album or a certain era in a band’s history – like the Beatles Revolver or the Stones Tattoo You. One of my favorite artists who has released a treasure trove of vault stuff is Bob Dylan. His Bootleg Series is exceptional. I was looking through the complete list of the Bootleg releases the other day and realized I have only not purchased two in the series: The Bootleg Series No 9: The Witmark Demos 1962- 1964 (because I felt it was redundant and had too much overlap with The Bootleg Series 1 – 3 (Rare And Unreleased) and also The Bootleg Series No 15: Travelin’ Through, 1967 – 1969 because I didn’t feel there was enough meat on the bones on that one.
A few Fridays ago Dylan released the 17th in the series – which is a lot – focused on the sessions that produced one of his most acclaimed albums, Time Out of Mind. Coincidentally, last summer a friend of mine texted me the following: “Just listened to Time Out of Mind for the first time, needless to say, mind blown.” As the album was originally released in 1997 I was a little staggered to hear that my good friend, who has broad musical tastes, had never heard this album. I knew at the time that Dylan was working on his next box, focused on the time around Time Out of Mind but I held off on saying anything to my friend. I needed to hear the set first before I ran around recommending it. I just wasn’t sure that The Bootleg Series Vol. 17: Fragments – Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996–1997) was going to blow me away. And with an $140 price tag, it needs to blow me away.
I had a weird path into my Dylan “fandom.” When you’re a teenager and you’ve just started listening to music you tend to listen to what’s on the radio, what’s “popular.” You buy the albums that are then current by an artist and slowly (or quickly depending on your financial situation) work your way through the artist’s back catalog. I started listening to rock music in the late 70s so my first Dylan “then-current” album was Slow Train Coming. I didn’t know it was a religious album until I heard it the first time all the way through. “Gotta Serve Somebody” was huge on the radio and I think it won a Grammy so it wasn’t that crazy of entry point into Dylan. But after that LP it was hard to stay a Dylan fan. I bought his first, single vinyl LP “best of,” Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits but that’s as far as I got before heading to college. After Slow Train things were a bit of a bumpy ride for a Dylan fan. He released a few more religious albums before the strong Infidels was released in ’83. I loved his next album, Empire Burlesque although I don’t think it was the hit Dylan wanted. And yes, the production on that album was very “of it’s time.”
It just kept getting worse for Dylan in the 80s. Like McCartney it was a real lull in his career. He put two terrible records in a row: Knocked Out Loaded (which actually had a few songs I liked) and Down In The Groove, which outside of “Silvio” with the Grateful Dead, was abysmal. I didn’t connect with the Daniel Lanois Oh Mercy but it was hailed as one of the few strong records of the era for Dylan. After that one, he reached his creative nadir with Under The Red Sky. “Wiggle Wiggle” was cited as proof that Dylan just didn’t care anymore. Dylan then retreated to his past and recorded two solo, acoustic guitar only, folk albums (Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong) that I absolutely loved when I discovered them 20 years after they were released. But in the early 90s you didn’t hear a lot of folk music on the radio… or anywhere else frankly, so it took me a long time to discover that music.
By ’97 it had been 4 years since we’d heard from Dylan and 7 years since he’d released an album of new material. I had all but given up on Dylan and considered him more of a back catalog artist for me – meaning I was only buying his records from the 60s and the 70s and nothing new. And then I heard “Not Dark Yet.” Dylan had reunited with Daniel Lanois to produce Time Out Of Mind and he had mic’d Dylan’s voice so it sounded like the voice of eternity calling from the grave. These songs, bluesy in nature, were all concerned with mortality and the end of relationships. It was a devastatingly good record. Dylan got sick after the record was done, he had an infection that went to his heart. Despite the fact the album was finished prior to the illness, everyone said this was Dylan’s rumination on his own death. Spoiler alert: he didn’t die. Time Out of Mind was the first Dylan record I purchased in decade. When I heard “Love Sick” I was blown away. “I’m sick of love… and I’m in the thick of it.” “Trying To Get To Heaven” was indeed a rumination about death but it was a staggeringly good song. It was obvious that Dylan had spent a lot of time writing the record. There isn’t a bad song on the record. The album ends with the 16 minute epic “Highlands” that rank amongst Dylan’s longest and most epic songs. If you’re like my friend and you’ve never heard this album, at the very least, put it on the stereo.
Now, over 25 years down the road Dylan is revisiting those sessions in ’96-97 on The Bootleg Series Vol. 17: Fragments – Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996–1997). There were, somewhat famously, a handful of outtakes and leftovers from the recording session. “Mississippi” which ended up being recorded/released by Sheryl Crow prior to Dylan releasing a version was one of the outtakes. Coincidentally Billy Joel released his version of “Make You Feel My Love” prior to Dylan’s version. It was considered an outlier on Dylan’s record but I love that song. Whenever my daughter hears someone singing that, she Shazams it and send it to me. It’s like it’s become a standard. Other outtakes were: “Dreamin’ of You,” “Red River Shore” and “Marchin’ To The City.” My issue with this box set is that many of those outtakes were on The Bootleg Series Volume 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare And Unreleased 1989 – 2006. While I only bought the 2 disc version of that box, we’ve covered this ground before.
The new Fragments first disc is Time Out of Mind remixed. The story is that Dylan was always unhappy with Lanois’ mix. It was murky and ominous. Dylan had to be happy that he got the comeback he so desperately needed so how mad could he have been? Although, he’s famously produced himself ever since. The remix on this first disc doesn’t get me jumping up and down. I’m happy with the original version of the album. Unless you’re Giles Martin working on The Beatles or Let It Be, I’m not moved much by remixes. Martin is doing amazing work producing new stereo mixes of those albums.
The second and third discs are outtakes from the Time Out of Mind sessions. We get a lot of early versions of the songs that made it on to Time Out of Mind. And yes, they’re an interesting view into the creative process. They sound less murky and mysterious. There are some additional versions of the outtakes I mentioned above. It’s interesting stuff but I’ve heard a lot of versions of those songs before on Tell Tale Signs. You’d have to be a real Dylan super-fan to get into this. I am a Dylan super-fan but these versions just didn’t scratch that “I have to own this” itch I have. He hasn’t really released any of these early versions of Time Out of Mind songs before so there is some interesting stuff here.
The fourth disc is live versions of the songs from the original album. I’m a huge fan of live stuff from a tour from a certain album. I loved Rush’s anniversary box for Moving Pictures from last year because for the first time they released a full concert from that tour, the first one I saw Rush on. But these live tracks are all taken from different shows during the time period which makes it a disjointed listen. The sound on some of these is so rough I thought it might be an audience recording or an actual bootleg. I don’t see myself ever putting those live versions back on. Although the version of “Til I Fell In Love With You” from Buenos Aires might find it’s way onto a playlist or two… it’s punchy.
Finally the fifth disc is a “bonus disc” and contains songs already released on the aforementioned Tell Tale Signs. Again, I own all of that already as do many Dylan fans. Tell Tale Signs is one of the strongest of the Bootleg Series which renders this album if not superfluous, maybe indulgent.
Certainly, if you don’t have Time Out of Mind, this would be a nice way to pick it up. There are outtakes on here worth hearing and playing loudly. But I can’t in good conscious recommend anybody purchase this. 2/3 of it most of us own already. The live stuff is frankly, sub-par. The outtakes are as interesting as most of the stuff you find in the Bootleg Series, but just not compelling enough to make this one of the stronger entries in the series. I don’t dislike this box, I just found it, well, for lack of a better term, “meh.” This box certainly doesn’t diminish the original album but it didn’t add a lot for me…