A little over 25 years ago, I crossed the threshold and stepped into a Meijer in Newark, Ohio, shortly after midnight on September 30, 1997. I was about to buy what I quickly discovered was a Bob Dylan Masterpiece: “Time Out of Mind.”
The trap with writing about the album is to frame it in the context of Dylan’s life and career. Many writers have a penchant for pointing out the album came at a low point in his career and that he almost died shortly before its release.
It’s not that the facts are untrue. But in some ways, those facts minimize the album.
The five-disc Bootleg Series Vol. 17: “Fragments – Time Out of Mind Sessions” features 25 outtakes and alternate versions. It also features live tracks of the entire album, save for “Dirt Road Blues,” which Dylan has never performed live.
The set’s first disc is a new mix of the original album. It is followed by two discs of outtakes, a disc of live tracks and one disc of 12 tracks previously released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: “Tell Tale Signs.”
The pedal steel is more prominent on “Not Dark Yet,” while the guitars stand out more on “Cold Irons Bound.” The listener quickly realizes just how much depth there was on the album and how producer Daniel Lanois’ layered approach gave the songs such character.
The album’s new mix is a fascinating window into the album. Is it better than the original? One could debate it.
The ethereal sound of the album has been what I found so compelling over the past 25-plus years. I don’t know that I would say the new mix is better per se, but I suspect my opinion will change depending on the day. Regardless, it’s like listening to the album in a new way.
He again proves that “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” is as true today as it was 26 years ago when he committed the lines to tape.
The second disc appropriately kicks off with a cover of “The Water is Wide,” a Scottish folk song and one that Dylan’s press folks dubbed a “spiritual precursor of ‘Highlands,’” the epic closing track of “Time Out of Mind.” It also serves as a segue between Dylan’s previous two albums — collections of folk songs — and what was to come.
One of the biggest topics of discussion with any Dylan retrospective is whether the tracks on the final album were the best choices to include. While some fans will no doubt want to wander down that rabbit hole, I’m not sure I’ll be among their ranks.
While it’s always fun to ponder what might have been — and I’ll no doubt make some personal playlists reenvisioning the album — this set proves precisely how inspired Dylan was when he went into the studio in late 1996 and early 1997.
Time allows us to see events with context. It’s true in history, and it’s true in music. Dylan’s early-to-mid 1990s output wasn’t a low point of his career; it was merely a reset. When I saw Dylan perform at Music Midtown in Atlanta on May 5, 1996, little did I know he was on the cusp of a career renaissance.
“Time Out of Mind” proved it a quarter of a century ago. “Fragments” reaffirms it today. After all, he “suddenly shifted gears, releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ’90s.”
Ladies and gentlemen, Columbia Recording artist…Bob Dylan.