Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series Vol.17: Fragments: a Masterpiece as It Is Painted

Columbia Records continues to extend its Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, which began in 1991. The latest edition in this complex warren of burrows brings us to Volume 17, Bob Dylan—Fragments—Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996–1997).

Fragments—the title—feels inaccurate; these recordings are not shards of some missing whole. Rather, they form a single large, varied portrait. To borrow an analogy from art history, what we have here is the result of cleaning and restoring a large canvas, removing layers of varnish and dirt that had obscured the true colors and textures that were there when it was first painted. Now we can experience this masterpiece in a new way.

This Dylan Bootleg Series Vol.17 collection combines the original tracks from the 1997 release Time Out of Mind along with previously unreleased studio outtakes and live performances. The original album has been remixed by Michael Brauer, working with veteran Sony Legacy producers Jeff Rosen and Steve Berkowitz. Remixing—going back to the individual tracks and recombining them in a new way—is a more extensive refreshment than remastering. An obvious, high-profile comparison is the recent remixes of Beatles albums by Giles Martin and his Abbey Road team.

Time Out of Mind was a long time coming. When released in 1997, it had been seven years since Dylan had released an album of new, original material. The record was highly praised; it sold well and yielded three 1998 Grammy awards including Album of the Year. But the back story for this success wasn't an easy one. Dylan brought back producer Daniel Lanois, with whom he had last worked seven years earlier, on 1989's Oh Mercy. Starting in fall 1996, at Lanois's Teatro studio in Oxnard, north of Dylan's Malibu home, the initial sessions employed a small band consisting of Dylan, Lanois, Tony Garnier on bass, and Tony Mangurian on drums. In January 1997, Dylan decided to move recording to the well-known Criteria Studios in Miami, where a whole bunch of other musicians joined in—13 are credited—all recording in the studio live.

Creative sparks flew. Dylan had been educating Lanois with old blues records. The blues has always been an anchor for Bob's songwriting; of the 11 songs on Time Out of Mind, four are classic 12-bar blues and two others resemble vamp blues with refrains. Lanois, a successful, widely admired record producer with distinctive ideas about sound and music, played a key role in forming the soundscape for Time Out of Mind: dark, mournful, spacey, with lots of reverb and echo. In hindsight, some people who write about the music are piling on. But I've got to admire the chutzpah of a guy who could stand up to Bob Dylan creatively; not easily done, I wouldn't think.

Dylan's voice was recorded with direct vocal miking and through a guitar amp. Added to that was plentiful reverb and slap-back echo, added during mixing. (Think rockabilly, Sun Records, and John Lennon.) The result—the original Time Out of Mind mix—is mysterious and opaque, unique and haunting. The downside of his high-calorie style of recording and mixing is a loss of clarity, reducing the power in the delivery of Dylan's lyrics.

Engineer Michael Brauer, who has been involved with the Dylan Bootleg Series for many years, said "I was told to make it sound more like a singer-songwriter record. ... I respected the original record. I've done it differently in a good way." Columbia/Sony Legacy producer Steve Berkowitz said, "Make it simpler." The end result, for this listener, is a dramatic increase in the visceral emotional wallop of Dylan's great songs. Now you can hear precisely how Dylan attacks each vowel and consonant, delivered as only he can. Whether he's spitting out a scalding putdown or caressing a tender sentiment, there's more there there now.

The labyrinthine nature of this Dylan rabbit hole becomes apparent when you compare the original album with the newly released alternate takes and live performances. How much of that you can access depends on which version you choose. I bought the 4-LP set (Columbia Legacy 19439981971): LPs 1 and 2 contain the new remix; LPs 3 and 4 are outtakes and alternates. There is also a two-CD set, a five-CD set, and a 10-LP version, the last available only on Dylan's website. And the whole shebang is out there streaming in 24/96 hi-rez.

We are talking about Bob Dylan, so nothing is set in stone. The full "Deluxe Edition" contains six versions of "Mississippi"—five from the studio, one live—which didn't appear on Time Out of Mind, although it was planned for that album. It was rerecorded for 2001's Love and Theft (Columbia CK 85975). (The line "I stayed in Mississippi a day too long" is from a song recorded by Alan Lomax in 1947 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary.) Listening to these alternates is a mini–master class in how to find the right tempo, the right drum groove. You are there with Dylan as he feels his way forward with his muse.

Another connection: The Deluxe Edition has four versions of "Tryin' to Get to Heaven." The third verse contains the line, "I'm just going down the road feeling bad." Ring them bells? Woody Guthrie covered the traditional folk song "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad." Bob sang it with The Band during the 1967 Basement Tapes period, itself the focus of a volume in the Bootleg series, Vol.11, released in 2014. The Grateful Dead made the song a permanent part of their setlists, and Dylan toured with the Dead in 1987. Dylan eulogized Jerry Garcia at his funeral in 1995, a year before the Time Out of Mind sessions began.

I loved hearing four versions (two studio, two live) of "Cold Irons Bound," which won Bob another Grammy in 1998, for Best Male Rock Vocal.

Dylan is like a surfer in the deep water below his home in Malibu, knowing that if he waits, another big set will roll in and lift his career toward the shore.

Anton's picture

It could almost be a cocktail party topic: "Best Dylan Bootleg Editions."

Volume 17 is in my top 3.

Volume 8 simply rocked by brain and 11 is truly essential.

I'd buy an album composed of only his versions of Mississippi, so I may not be the ultimate arbiter. But, I went for the ten LP version of this and find it worthy.

Thanks for reviewing this release.

Side discussion: "Mississippi" from Disc One, side one, volume 8 is my personal favorite.

'Unreleased, Time Out of Mind....6:04'

I use it for Hi Fi demo material, that great. Eerily great!


(I secretly admit the 'objective' most 'important' Bootleg release is volume 11.)