Imagine discovering Bob Dylan in the 1990s, just as he’s releasing what will come to be identified as a “comeback” album. That was this writer in 1997.
Tired of grunge and riot grrrls, fresh to the world of folk and roots music, Time Out of Mind felt like a return to something truer. Maybe it was a return for both Bob Dylan and me.
“I try to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you,” he sings partway through the Daniel Lanois-produced disc, on “Million Miles.” With what’s now a trademark grumble, he lets loose a longing that could be aimed at an elusive lover as much as a gaze in the mirror.
As an introduction to one of the most legendary American artists (legendary meaning many people, including the artist himself, had made up legends about him), Time Out of Mind was an interesting entrée. There were a lot of cymbal crashes, a lot of filthily distorted electric guitar chords piled atop crystal-clear noodling. There was the occasional Wurlitzer or Hammond B3 organ that gave the whole thing a vibe—if one was used to grunge and riot grrls—like it was happening mid-alien-abduction.
But through all those foggy curtains was the legend and the blues.
The blues presents an automatic agreement between the artist, the audience, and the tradition. There are certain notes that progress to certain other notes. There is a certain place where it all will end. There is a certain room for a certain crescendo followed by an instrumental solo, which will deliver us safe and sound to a place we expect to land.
As much as there is devastation and sadness and every chaotic emotion crammed into the baggage of the lyrics, the blues remains surefooted. And, because he has been a devotee of the blues since childhood, Bob Dylan is a modern-day master.
Much has been said about the quality of the recordings on the seventeenth installment of Dylan’s Bootleg Series. This one, Fragments—Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996-1997), turns a rare focus on a specific album. It comes in the form of five CDs or ten vinyl records, complete with liners and various visuals. Hardcore fans know what they’re listening for and casual Dylanologists will hear what they want.
The glory of the series, though, is that an artist who has often been so mystifying to the public is being so demystified by his process. To hear a song as masterful as “Million Miles” or “Standing in the Doorway” or “Not Dark Yet” in process is instructive to anyone who ever writes a song, performs a song, or walks into a studio to record a song.
To sweeten the deal, we get to hear him live and bootleggy, as well as in the studio on classics like “The Water Is Wide.” The latter is not so much a revelation as it is a welcome reminder of his underpinning of folkiness.
Dylan has spent his career playing with different styles of music, different sounds of his voice, different personas and ideas and worldviews and … even Christmas. But to hear him work through tempo and rhythm and his vocal performance in real time is a gift to anyone who cares about creating. Each approach he tries is notably better than much of what else is out there.
But there was a reason he and Lanois landed on the take they landed on. Time Out of Mind wound up being a comeback of sorts, but it was meant as a musical statement just like everything else he’s ever done. The beauty of art is that, everyone who listens hears him stating something different—except for those who hear the same thing.
Fragments — Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996-1997) is available HERE.