Do You Really Need This Five-CD Box Set?

By Michael Goldberg

The questions I am frequently asked when a new Bootleg Series set is released: “Is it worth all that money? Do I really need it?” I’m asked those questions because these multi-CD sets usually cost a lot of money. Here in the U.S., the five-CD version of Dylan’s latest, Fragments: The Bootleg Series Vol. 17, cost $113 on February 1, 2023 from a much-used online site (on February 2, 2023 it was discounted to $74.92). Most people don’t spend $100-plus (or even $74.92) on a box set lightly. Particularly one that is mostly comprised of multiple versions of 11 songs, which is the case with Fragments – the set based on Dylan’s 1997 album, Time Out of Mind.

Time Out Of Mind was an amazing and unexpected return for Dylan – who at the time hadn’t made a good album of original material since 1976’s Desire, 20 years earlier – and rock critics far and wide raved about the album. The public went for it too; it reached #10 on the Billboard 200, stayed on the charts for 29 weeks and quickly went platinum. It won three Grammy awards in 1998 including Album of the Year.

Dylan had prepared for making Time Out Of Mind by pretty much deciding he was done with songwriting, which is to say, until songs started coming to him, it appears that he hadn’t anticipated making an album of new songs. As Steven Hyden wrote in his liner notes for Fragments, “In the early ’90s, he [Dylan] talked openly about already having more than enough songs to sing. Did he really need to write more of them?”

He recorded two albums of old folk and blues songs in the years preceding Time Out Of Mind: 1992’s Good As I Been To You and 1993’s World Gone Wrong. (Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume 3 and a live album, MTV Unplugged, were released in 1994 and 1995.)

When it was released, I thought Time Out Of Mind was pretty good, but I didn’t flip over it. I listened to it a number of times, but didn’t become obsessed with it, as I had with Dylan albums in the ’60s and ’70s. All these years later, having listened to the original album a number of times in anticipation of Fragments, I realize Time Out Of Mind is much better than I thought it was in ’97. Still, it’s not Blonde On Blonde.

Fragments starts with a version of Time Out Of Mind that was remixed in 2022 by Michael Brauer, an acclaimed mix engineer who has worked with the Rolling Stones, Coldplay, Paul McCartney, the Pet Shop Boys, Willie Nelson and many others.

According to Douglas Brinkley, a journalist/author who writes about politics but who is also a big Dylan fan, who also wrote liner notes for Fragments, “Brauer’s remixes strip the Time Out of Mind tracks down to their bare, spectral essence, letting us experience Dylan’s crowbar voice and nuanced phrasings in all their raw, razor-edged authenticity.” Perhaps that’s true – although “crowbar voice” has nothing to do with Dylan’s voice as heard throughout Fragments – but in my listening, I prefer the tracks as released on the album in 1997. I could be wrong, but of the five disks that comprise this box set, the first disk – the remix – is not essential. Another contains all the Time Out of Mind sessions’ tracks previously released on Dylan’s Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8, which most people who would spend over $100 on Fragments probably already have. So, what we really have here are three CDs, one of which contains what sound like audience recordings from various venues, and two which contain outtakes and alternative takes, and a book of photos, ads for Time Out of Mind, and the liner notes by Hyden and Brinkley. It’s beautifully packaged, but still.

One recording stands above all the others. The old folk song, ‘The Water Is Wide,’ was recorded during an early session at producer Daniel Lanois’ southern California studio, Teatro in Oxnard, on August 19,1996. It starts off the second CD, the first with Outtakes and Alternates. Dylan has been singing ‘The Water Is Wide’ since at least the Rolling Thunder Review in 1975-1976, where Dylan and Joan Baez would sing it as a duet. This recording is exquisite, featuring Dylan’s intimate vocal and acoustic guitar playing, subtle guitar from Lanois and low-keyed bass and drums from Tony Garnier and Tony Mangurian; it’s never previously been officially released, and for me it’s perfect.

‘The Water Is Wide’ is a love song, a lost-love song. Actually, it’s more than a lost-love song. It’s a song that states that love cannot last. It’s profoundly sad. Here’s the key verse as Dylan sings it:

“Oh, love is gentle, and love is kind
Gay as a jewel when first it’s new
But love grows old and waxes cold
And fades away like the morning dew”

It’s a dark, hopeless song – heartbreaking – and it sets the mood for Time Out Of Mind, even though it wasn’t included on the album. Knowing this song was recorded early on – Brinkley writes that Dylan “resurrected it as a reference point to jumpstart his creative process…”

Certainly, there are versions of the Time Out Of Mind songs that are quite moving. A January 1997 take of ‘Love Sick’ is a death march. While the opening lyrics are mostly the same as on Time Out Of Mind, the way Dylan sings them, and the funeral dirge of the music makes it a different song. Version 1 of ‘Love Sick’ begins with some downbeat electric guitar and these lines:

“I’m walking through streets that are dead
Walking with you in my head,
My feet are so tired,
My brain is too wired,
And the air is hazy.”

Life is hopeless, there is no point to it, why are we even here? That’s what I hear in this early version. The arrangement for the alternate take of ‘Cold Irons Bound’ isn’t as captivating as the version on Time Out Of Mind, but there is a verse that really should not have been cut from the album version:

“Well, there’s so many stones in the pathway hurled
It’s so easy to be corrupted in my corner of the world
Well, the road is rocky and the hillside’s mud
Right overhead nothing but clouds of blood”

‘Standing in the Doorway’ is one of my favorite songs on Time Out Of Mind; it has such a lovely melody and I’ve dug these lines:

“I eat when I’m hungry, drink when I’m dry
And live my life on the square
And even if the flesh falls off of my face
I know someone will be there to care”

While I don’t care for the first version recorded on January 13, 1997, the alternate take also recorded that day, noted here as Version 2, is quite good, though still not up to the version on the album. And, so it goes. The alternative takes are pretty good, some are great, some have alternate lyrics that you might want to hear Dylan sing, but overall, this set is not essential.

So, what should you, the reader who has not yet taken the plunge, do? Are the three CDs here of recordings not previously released worth your $100-plus dollars (or perhaps $74.92)?

If you consider Time Out Of Mind one of the great Dylan albums of all time, if you are a Dylan completest, if you are an obsessive who loves the Time Out Of Mind songs so much that you are excited to hear alternate takes of them, then yes, you’ll need this album and, in fact, you’ve probably already got it.

But if you’re a Dylan fan who has their favorites, but really doesn’t feel compelled to hear what was left on the cutting room floor, you should probably pass. And if you’re a Dylan fan who never got caught up in Time Out Of Mind, this isn’t for you. Go seek out ‘The Water Is Wide’ on YouTube and be done with it.

Writer and photographer Michael Goldberg has been interviewing and photographing musicians since he was
 17. He was a senior writer at Rolling Stone magazine for a decade. His writing has appeared in Esquire, New Musical Express, Creem, DownBeat, New York Rocker, Trouser Press, Musician, New West, Vibe, NewTimes, The San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. He has had three novels published: True Love Scars, The Flowers Lied, and Untitled. In May 2022, Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey was published. Addicted To Noise: The Music Writings of Michael Goldberg was published on November 1, 2022.