It’s long been established that Bob Dylan is something of a maverick – go to one of his shows and you never know which version of the erstwhile Mr. Zimmerman you’re going to get. Sometimes it’s jaw dropping, sensational new versions of past glories in clever, innovative flourishes, and at others it’s a frustrating train wreck, with previously spectacular pieces from his unbelievable canon being stripped of all redeeming features on what seems to be a whim. The Bootleg Series can be a bit like that. Yet at the same time, they’re pretty much essential to the Dylan connoisseur. And Volume 17 is arguably more worthy than most.
‘Love Sick‘ hasn’t been particularly bastardised here. It still starts with that jerky reggae guitar intro that was so redolent of Pixies‘ ‘Mr. Grieves‘ from Doolittle, and it remains an appealingly muzzy stroll in the woods, albeit with more prominent drums here leading the way, before the funfair playfulness of ‘Dirt Road Blues‘, again proves a slightly more ballsy version of the original, which was already great, of course.
Perhaps the most arresting of the already-known tracks here is the glorious, organ-led ‘Make You Feel My Love‘. Most famous in its Adele version, Dylan here absolutely nails it to such an extent that the impact of this gut-wrenchingly beautiful song is magnified threefold.
If Daniel Lanois had already put his stamp all over Time Out Of Mind, he practically embodies it here, the pedal steel of the fabulous 16 and a half minute closer ‘Highlands‘ suggestive of the prairies of the producer’s Canadian homeland. It far outstrips its 1997 ‘proper’ version, which is some going, considering what a strong track it already was.
It’s after disc one though, that thing get really interesting – the previously unreleased versions of many tracks providing a web of considerable intrigue. Chief amongst these is ‘Cold Irons Bound‘ with its addictive THUMPING rhythm. You can almost picture Dylan twisting, turning, cartoon-like, while trying to charm the snakes away from the desert as this plays. And yes, that probably DOES make no sense, I admit, but that’s absolutely what it made my subconscious think of and for some reason, it’s utterly irresistible.
‘Mississippi Version 2” is unrecognisable from the laid-back country ballad that featured on 2001’s Love And Theft, here adopting a kind of honky-tonk persona, and while it’s an interesting curio, it doesn’t even come close to the beauty of its recorded version. Still a fascinating take, but like Version 2 of ‘Tryin’ To Get To Heaven‘, it just doesn’t quite have the same heart as its parent album’s form.
On the other hand, the version of ‘The Water Is Wide‘ that opens disc two is just devastatingly gorgeous. A song that will be no stranger to Bob’s fans, the particular version included on Bootleg 17 was recorded at London’s Teatro in August 1996. Dylan’s lyrics here should, by rights, come across as ultra-schmaltzy: “The water is wide and I can’t cross over / Neither have I wings that I could fly / Build me a boat that can carry two / And both shall row my love and I” but they don’t; they are merely wistful and full of warmth, as is the following ‘Red River Shore Version 1‘. They make you want to run down to said river, kick back and just be at one with nature.
Fragments is a five-disc set encompassing the period between Time Out Of Mind and Love And Theft, and contains reimagined versions of the tracks from his 1997 album as well as outtakes and alternates on discs 2 and 3, live takes on disc 4 from all over the world, and further different versions on disc 5 that were previously released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989–2006. The sheer scope of this collection is quite extraordinary and if you’re a Dylan lover, you can’t really NOT buy it. It’s a must.