Bob Dylan’s career has been nothing if not a model of inconsistency. After the golden run of the 1960s, his output in the subsequent decade ricocheted among genius, mediocrity, and just plain weird. Then the ‘80s happened, and the fluctuation was between records that were intermittently engaging (“Infidels,” “Oh Mercy”) and those that were unlistenable (“Empire Burlesque,” “Knocked Out Loaded”). However you parsed the merits of one effort or another, by the end of the decade the smart money was on Dylan’s “important” work being over. By the mid-’90s he was putting out albums of old folk songs — a telltale sign, it seemed, that his once-unstoppable creative force was spent.
So pretty much nobody had “Dylan releases a career-defining album to stand with his best work” on their bingo card when “Time Out of Mind” appeared in September 1997. Dylan had reestablished contact with themes of deep resonance — mortality, the disappointments of love, the hard truths of age and regret — and scrutinized them with a poetic yet unsparing edge. The album’s emotional center, “Not Dark Yet,” was Dylan’s best song since “Tangled Up in Blue.”
Of equal importance, these heartsick lyrics were swathed in an atmospheric soundscape unlike any music Dylan had made before. Before recording began, he told producer Daniel Lanois to listen to old blues albums to get the spirit he was after. The producer, though, opted instead for a dark, layered texture meticulously crafted from a studio full of musicians — including multiple guitarists, keyboardists, pedal steel players, and drummers — and a raft of post-production overdubs. The music was rooted in the blues but didn’t sound bluesy at all. It shouldn’t have worked but it did.
Given its importance in his career, as well as tales of the storminess of the recording sessions — arguments between Dylan and Lanois were common, and at least one guitar was smashed — Dylanologists have been anxious for a “Time Out of Mind” entry in the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series. It is finally at hand: “Fragments — Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996-1997),” the 17th volume in Sony’s durable series, arrives on Friday. The beautifully packaged box set contains 60 tracks — early demos, alternate takes, live recordings, and a complete remix of the finished record — spread across five CDs.
Much of the material offers what Dylan fans have long sought: a glimpse into the process that brought the album’s 11 songs to their finished form. The improbably upbeat early versions of “‘Til I Fell in Love with You” and “Not Dark Yet” — the latter with an improbable R&B groove — show just how labyrinthine that journey was. No track is better represented than “Can’t Wait,” which exists in seven different iterations in this set. Delivering this grim ultimatum, Dylan sounds alternately plaintive, wounded, detached, and, in one of the live versions, elegantly sinister.
“Fragments” also devotes significant space to three songs that didn’t make the final album. One of them, “Mississippi,” was a prime source of conflict between Dylan, who wanted it simple, and Lanois, who wanted it “sexy.” An outtake with just Lanois accompanying Dylan on electric guitar shows how right the songwriter’s instinct was. (A different arrangement would eventually appear on Dylan’s next album, “Love and Theft.”)
For my money, though, the most illuminating part of “Fragments” is the remix by engineer Michael Brauer, a respectful yet fresh take on the familiar sound of the finished album. Brauer thins out the processing and murk from the sound, giving the instruments greater space and definition. A couple of tracks go further, and a longtime fan may wonder where some familiar riffs have gone; still, the remix does an excellent job of opening up the sonic picture without ruining the atmosphere that gives “Time Out of Mind” its identity.
The consumer advocate in me feels compelled to raise a few caveats. Five CDs might sound like a lot of material, but all 12 tracks on the final CD were released on “Tell Tale Signs,” a 2008 Bootleg Series entry. And while it was a great idea to include a full album’s worth of live versions to gauge the afterlife of the “Time Out of Mind” songs, most weren’t professionally recorded, so you have some terrific performances marred by rather dim sound.
The greatest achievement of “Time Out of Mind” is the way it recast our view of Dylan’s entire career. The nadirs of his output, it turns out, weren’t the new baseline, just temporary crises, and those albums of old folk songs — or, for that matter, American Songbook standards — now look like Dylan’s way of re-gathering inspiration. “I think I’m in my middle years now,” he told the novelist Jonathan Lethem in 2006, when “Modern Times,” his excellent 32nd studio album, was released. It seemed like a crazy thing to say, but seven albums have followed since then, each (with the possible exception of the Christmas record) with a lot to offer. Perhaps the true legacy of “Time Out of Mind” is that it taught us never to bet against him again.