The Oxford dictionary describes the phrase time out of mind as "a time in the past that was so long ago that people have no knowledge or memory of it." What was Bob Dylan getting at when he lifted the phrase for his 1997 Grammy Award-winning album? Critics and fans alike immediately seized on the notion of the record as some kind of dark farewell from an artist in the September of his years. Indeed, the album was filled with musings on lost love, mortality, hopelessness, and despair. But there was more to Time Out of Mind lurking under the surface. If it was intended as a farewell, it failed miserably; it ended up inaugurating a golden era that saw it followed by such powerful albums as Love and Theft and Modern Times.
Now, Time Out of Mind is the subject of Fragments, the seventeenth and latest volume of Dylan's long-running Bootleg Series. It's a bit unlike previous Bootleg volumes as it opens with the album itself, or at least a new mix of it. In that sense, it plays more like an expanded edition than a traditional Bootleg entry. But what's most uncanny about this volume is how it redefines the parent album. Rather than merely reinforcing the legend of Time Out of Mind, Fragments adds to it - and complicates it, too. Considering the full portrait of its sessions presented here, a much more varied narrative emerges than the one popularized in 1997.
Only fourteen songs were considered by Dylan and producer Daniel Lanois for Time Out of Mind, eleven of which made the original cut. (Five additional songs were recorded during the sessions: "Mississippi," "Red River Shore," "The Water Is Wide," "Dreamin' of You," and "Marchin' to the City.") Lanois had previously produced 1989's Oh Mercy; arriving after a string of lackluster-performing albums, it was regarded as a "comeback" for Dylan in much the same way Time would be. Lanois was quick to recognize the searing insight and power of the new songs Dylan was composing, and work sessions began in August 1996 at Teatro, Lanois' Oxnard, California studio. Months later, in January, they relocated to Miami's famed Criteria Studios (The Bee Gees, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton) with a big, rotating cast of musicians including bassist Tony Garnier and drummer Tony Mangurian, both of whom had played at the Teatro sessions. At Criteria, Dylan and Lanois' visions for the album began to diverge. In his liner notes for Fragments, historian and Dylan fan Douglas Brinkley describes their debates in vivid detail. The road wasn't easy, but when both men left Criteria, they had an album's worth of stunning new recordings in the can.
Whereas Dylan still chased the sonic trends of the day throughout the 1980s, his artistic rebirth as of Time Out of Mind found him reconnecting with blues, rockabilly, folk, and even the Great American Songbook. Those influences, so evident on Time, still inform his work today, far more than the tag of "rock."
On the opening "Love Sick," Dylan is unusually direct, his voice piercing through the spare, sepulchral backing. "I'm sick of love/I wish I'd never met you," he spits with clarion power. "I'm sick of love/I'm tryin' to forget you/Just don't know what to do/I'd give anything to be with you." The song set the mood for Time Out of Mind. A rockabilly groove worthy of Johnny Cash or Carl Perkins lifts "Dirt Road Blues," an ironically jaunty tale of heartbreak ("I been pacing around the room hoping maybe she'd come back/Pacing 'round the room hoping maybe she'd come back/Well, I been praying for salvation laying 'round in a one-room country shack...") sung by Dylan in a voice tinged with resignation.
Anguish comes to the fore on "Standing in the Doorway." Sonically inspired by 1966's "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," the slow, ruminative ballad of loneliness is flecked with both idiosyncratic turns of phrase ("I'm strummin' on my gay guitar/Smokin' a cheap cigar") and straight-to-the-heart confessions ("Last night I danced with a stranger/But she just reminded me you were the one/You left me standin' in the doorway cryin'/Sufferin' like a fool"). There's hypnotic beauty in Dylan's vulnerable delivery, set to a simple, repetitive melody. Church organ and weepy pedal steel swirl in the soundscape.
The songs are of a piece, frequently evoking a character on the brink of losing all hope, whether on the mordant "Tryin' to Get to Heaven" ("When you think that you've lost everything/You find out you can always lose a little more...") or "'Til I Fell in Love with You," the bluesy latter also tinged with wry, dark humor ("Well, my house is on fire/Burnin' to the sky/Well, I thought it would rain/But the clouds passed by..."). The occasional smirk in Dylan's vocals makes one wonder about the reliability of the narrator, yet the lyrical imagery is potent and convincing throughout.
Though his voice was far removed from its white-hot mid-1960s yelp or deep Nashville Skyline croon, the singer made the most of his whiskey-and-cigarettes timbre. His rasp beautifully conveys the yearning and desperation of the late-night saloon lament "Million Miles." The haunting, stately "Not Dark Yet," a reflection on mortality set to a rumbling rhythm, may be the album's finest moment. Though the lyrics are often bleak, Dylan holds onto the slightest glimmer of hope even if the darkness is lingering around the corner. It's not dark yet, but it's getting there...
Dylan had long been fascinated with American cultural imagery, a realm in which the open road looms large. On "Cold Irons Bound," he looks inward as he's "cold irons bound and 20 miles out of town" with both friends and lovers having abandoned him. The song's steely, ghostly soundscape is punctuated by spiky guitars, sharply demanding one's attention. Among all this despairing is Dylan's successful bid for a new American standard. "Make You Feel My Love" was heartfelt, immediate, and immaculately crafted. It showed a softer side of Dylan not always obviously in evidence, and became one of his most familiar and oft-recorded compositions. Yet "Make You Feel My Love" stands alone on Time Out of Mind.
The near-apocalyptic "Can't Wait" is cut from the same cloth as "Love Sick," with the lyrics equating the singer's romantic feelings with violence ("Your loveliness has wounded me/I'm reeling from the blow/I wish I knew what it was that keeps me loving you so..."). The epic closing blues "Highlands" clocks in at over 16 minutes, his longest song until 2020's dark, pandemic-era "Murder Most Foul." It's a standard E blues riff, with no chorus or bridge. Inspired by Robert Burns, "Highlands" transports the listener to an otherworldly place. Its lyrics are open to interpretation despite its very specific references. "I'm wondering what in the Devil could it all possibly mean," he asks in the song. There are plentiful answers, though, as the song reiterates and encapsulates the many themes of Time Out of Mind. It's movingly wistful, and stream-of-consciousness-Dylan at his finest.
Michael Brauer's new remix of the album tones down Daniel Lanois' hazy, gauzy production to present the songs in a manner closer to the way Dylan and the band performed them in the studio. His voice is front and center, with the effects applied by Lanois largely removed; the accompaniment is always in sync but never intrusive or flashy. For those familiar with the album, the stripped-down sound is jarring. Happily, this remix doesn't replace the original (which is still available physically and digitally) but exists side-by-side as a different view onto Dylan's mysterious masterwork.
The second and third discs of Fragments present 25 previously unreleased outtakes and alternates from both the Teatro and Criteria sessions. The exploratory nature of the Teatro recordings is particularly fascinating. Perhaps to get him in the right mood and spirit for the album that became Time Out of Mind, Dylan cut a beautiful, understated rendition of the Scottish folk song "The Water Is Wide" at Teatro; he had previously played the song live in 1975 on the Rolling Thunder tour.
The outtake "Dreamin' of You" was first heard on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 - Tell Tale Signs; the version here from the Teatro sessions is longer and much rawer, with unique lyrics, different phrasing, a slower tempo, and a skeletal arrangement. It's still driven by Dylan's piano and still captivating. ("Dreamin' of You" shares similarities - and lyrics - with "Standing in the Doorway.")
Another outtake, "Red River Shore," was later resurrected for Love and Theft. A Jimmie Rodgers-esque yodel is detectable in Dylan's voice on the embryonic version here, which features some lyrical variations from the final version. The composer's mastery of the folk song form was undiminished; "Red River Shore" exists outside of the place and time in which it was written and spiritually belongs to another era. These drafts reveal just how much Dylan in the studio altered lyrics, arrangements, phrasing, and a song's mood and feel.
The tracks from Criteria are similarly illuminating. Version 1 of "Love Sick" is an even darker, more somber take with alternative lyrics while Version 2 is more hushed and considered. A far less elegiac, soul-country Version 1 of "Not Dark Yet" lacks the gravitas of the final version, with Dylan singing in a too-high key. By Version 2, he's found a more comfortable key but the musicians haven't yet locked into their tightest, most economical groove with martial drums and smooth piano.
Each song was being refined on the spot, musically and lyrically. The first "Can't Wait" offers even more tortured lyrics ("Ever feel just like your brain's been bolted to the wall? The screws are tightening and you're cut off from it all..." or "I can't say if I want the pain to even end or not...") which are practically spat out by the singer with titanic bluster. By Version 2, Dylan and the band were trying out a cooler, smokier vibe. He never ceased tinkering with the tune; witness the two live versions on Disc Four that transform the song further. The initial "Standing in the Doorway" has a brisker tempo; "Cold Irons Bound" has alternative lyrics which are as evocative as the final ones. "Make You Feel My Love" boasts prominent organ and a longer introduction, but is lyrically intact except for just one couplet which was rewritten for the final version. The rendition of "Marchin' to the City" which premieres on Disc 3 joins two previously released versions reprised on CD 5. The 12-bar blues has some lyrics shared by "Till I Fell in Love with You" and "Not Dark Yet."
One of Dylan's latter-day classics, "Mississippi," is presented in its early form. It was inspired by a line from the prison song "Rosie," and that titular woman is mentioned in his lyric. He hasn't yet completely inhabited the song but it still crackles in its Zydeco-flavored version recorded at Criteria. (Another wholly different, even earlier version from the Teatro sessions is among the previously released material on Disc 5, as well as two more Criteria takes.) Another Criteria stab at the song leans into a funkier interpretation; in any form, it's a case of a terrific tune not fitting the mood of the album for which it was intended. On 2001's Love and Theft, it became an unquestionable highlight.
The fourth disc of Fragments is dedicated to live performances of the Time Out of Mind songs, all recorded at various stops of the so-called "Never-Ending Tour" between 1998 and 2001. In concert, Dylan's songs have long taken on a very different character, with wildly in-the-minute phrasing; tough, taut backing; and sheer grit. The songs here are organized in album order, albeit with "Dirt Road Blues" absent and replaced by "Can't Wait" (which appears in a second live version in its proper album sequence). Dylan's seemingly intuitive rapport with his live musicians is almost legendary in and of itself; he and his bands reshape these familiar songs as if playing them for the very first time. Many of the tracks sound as if they were sourced from audience tapes, but the musical creativity on display still impresses.
Arrangements were routinely reinvented; "Tryin' to Get to Heaven" from Birmingham (September 20, 2000) casts an even world-wearier, speak-sung vocal over a mellow, slow-burning backing. "Make You Feel My Love" (May 21, 1998, Los Angeles) gains muscularity, and "Can't Wait" (May 19, 2000, Oslo) is even more snarling and menacing. "'Til I Fell in Love with You" from Buenos Aires (April 5, 1998) is a down-and-dirty romp. "Highlands" lobs off around six minutes in the March 24, 2001 performance from Newcastle. As there's never been a live album from the "Never-Ending Tour," these recordings couldn't be more welcome.
The box is rounded out by a fifth disc of a dozen previously released selections culled from The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006. Adding to this exhaustive reexamination of Time Out of Mind is, of course, the 100-page hardcover book. Douglas Brinkley's extensive essay is joined by a second piece penned by critic Steven Hyden, and a Producer's Note adds further detail. The book is also loaded with photos, handwritten lyrics, and various memorabilia images. Greg Calbi and Steve Fallone at Sterling Sound have mastered the 2023 album mix while Mark Wilder has mastered the outtakes/alternates and live discs. Calbi's mastering is also heard on the disc of material from Tell Tale Signs. Both the book and a second hardcover with the discs (stored in slots, alas without protective sleeves) are housed within a sturdy slipcase in the tried-and-true Bootleg Series style.
In a 2020 song, Dylan proclaimed, "I Contain Multitudes." The truth of the matter is, he always did. There have been unconfirmed rumors that The Bootleg Series may be winding down after 30+ years and seventeen volumes. Put simply, "Say it ain't so." Fragments proves, once again, that there are still ample treasures to be mined in the Bob Dylan vaults.
Fragments is available now in various formats: