Following the recent publication of this review I wrote for Exclaim! Magazine, here is the original version of my journalistic, but rather personal take on the significance of Fragments – Time Out Of Mind Sessions (1996-1997): The Bootleg Series Vol. 17 by Bob Dylan.
“You ever feel just like your brain’s been bolted to the wall?” Bob Dylan half-screams on the first version of “Can’t Wait,” captured in January 1997. “All the screws are tightening and you’re cut off from it all/I don’t know.”
It’s a scorching outtake, with Dylan biting into his cinematic verses, many of which he’d eventually alter, as the band blends a perfect amalgam of heft and space for a menacing “Ballad of a Thin Man” bounce. It starts innocently and evenly before the full spectrum of sound kicks in and Dylan launches into the vocal like a tiger, but then he doubts himself.
“I don’t know.” Really?
It’s such a specifically certain circumstance to be unsure about, but then, counting a couple of live variations, there are five unique versions of “Can’t Wait” on Fragments, the seventeenth volume of Dylan’s generous Bootleg Series, capturing the sessions for 1997’s Time Out of Mind, which a generation of fans regard as Dylan’s greatest album.
As such, this indispensable and revelatory treatment is as loving and comprehensive as can be, giving us a sense of how Dylan and his various collaborators nailed down these spooky, funny, hard songs pondering loneliness, independence, and the end of one’s days. Beyond the stellar players, Dylan’s accomplices notably include producer Daniel Lanois and engineer Mark Howard, a Canadian tandem who helped Dylan give these wondrous songs their ambience and indelible character.
Structurally, on the five-disc Fragments (or, among other versions, a 10 LP set), the original album has been both remixed and reimagined; there’s a lo-fi live disc; one containing relevant, previously released tunes; and there are two discs of completely unreleased (and astonishing) process-oriented material that capture the evolution of Time Out of Mind’s songs with fascinating, jettisoned lyrics and arrangements that anyone else would’ve been thrilled with. In terms of stuff that was attempted but left behind for later (or for good), the few things here are each startling.
Dylan began these sessions covering “The Water is Wide,” ostensibly just to get him warm and in the mood to reveal new songs, but I don’t know.
Not only does this traditional song conjure the kind of endless travel that Time Out of Mind would, with lyrics like “Love is gentle, love is kind/The sweetest flower when first it’s new/But love grows old and waxes cold/And fades away like morning dew,” it sets the resigned, fatalistic table that Dylan’s notebooks of lyrics, likely rested on.
“Dreamin’ of You” is an early exploration for Dylan, as he pondered re-teaming with Lanois for the first time since their triumphant 1989 album, Oh Mercy. It contains a hodgepodge of lyrics Dylan would eventually include on songs like “Standing in the Doorway” or else scrapped, but it’s a powerfully loose document of how much magic Dylan has at his command.
“Red River Shore” is a lost original from these sessions, and unlike a previously released version that is arranged as a poignant ballad (and can be heard on the final Fragments disc, comprised of material we first heard on Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8), version one here is locked in a groove, with Dylan delivering more of a downcast, almost Bruce Springsteen-via-Woody Guthrie reading of the remarkable song. In a second attempt, it lands as a lovely epic full of ache and longing, with Dylan embracing its beautiful melody and structure. Though he seemingly never attempted it again for a subsequent album, it vaguely forecasts the kinds of epic songs steeped in repetition that would appear on Modern Times and Tempest.
“Mississippi” is simply one of Dylan’s most perfect songs, and aside from a live version, appears four times here, almost perfectly intact from his end of things; the lyrics and vocals are solid and ostensibly as they appear on 2001’s “Love and Theft.” Clashes with Lanois over the merits of “Mississippi” meant it wouldn’t make Time Out of Mind, but at least two of the arrangements here are so beautiful, I’d be happy hearing a million more.
Though nominally different, “Marchin’ to the City” is the foundational forebear to “‘Til I Fell in Love With You” with a few of the same lyrics but also many distinctive ones. As a gestational treasure, this is a cool curio because, as he did with most of the songs on Time Out of Mind, Dylan messed with the arrangement and feel of “‘Til I Fell in Love with You” a lot.
Such experimentation is evident on the disc of live performances included in this set that are generally so raw, if you close your eyes, you’d think you were actually in the bleachers, sitting beside a taper. There’s an arrangement of “Can’t Wait” from a Nashville show in 1999 that rips so hard, you’d wanna rush the stage (props to Dylan’s longest serving collaborator, bassist Tony Garnier, who came up with a remarkable, memorable part), while the improved fidelity of “‘Til I Fell in Love with You,” recorded in Buenos Aires in 1998, is a surprising and welcome blast. What a great bunch of bands Dylan had in this era.
In terms of Time Out of Mind, the new mixes are revelatory, getting us closer to Dylan’s voice than the original album enabled us to. Much of the processing and distortion that Lanois and Howard fashioned for the songs has been tempered or removed and Dylan’s singing suddenly sounds unburied, soaring higher here (though according to Howard, it was Dylan himself who revelled in the kind of Sun Records/Bullet mic murk that the engineer helped him achieve at the time).
Instrumentation is also levelled differently, faders removing, adding, or adapting the familiar foundational feel and flourishes fans have grown accustomed to. Or at least, it seems that way; much like a great Dylan song, some of these remixes may make you feel like you’re hearing strange things or make you question what you heard in the first place.
For instance, take “Make You Feel My Love.” Now an American standard and one of Dylan’s most impactful ballads (made most famous by Adele), “Make You Feel My Love” is more or less a new song here, with a much cleaner vocal, subtle drums that were never present on Time Out of Mind, and the final bridge is missing the original bass part completely, leaving just the piano, a faint organ, and Dylan’s voice to put the emotional lyrics across, unfettered. A simple decision that poignantly changes the tenor of the song, making its gallant promises, all the more direct. Genius stuff.
There are more than a few such surprises laying in wait on the remixed album proper, where canon arrangements are tweaked just so, and yet the effect is often profound. Time Out of Mind is so eerily matter-of-fact in its substance, it has truly haunted its fans. Dylan sings of persevering and roaming Earth’s painful corners, which are occupied by so many ghosts—departed friends, lost lovers, any sense of humanity itself gone down the drain—putting the record on has long conjured a few different kinds of afterlife, adding to the air it enters.
In their respective and remarkable liner notes for Fragments, Douglas Brinkley and Steven Hyden each delve into the history and making of the record, which went on to win the Grammy for Album of the Year and, depending on your perspective of his standing, assuredly launched the sixth or sixtieth Bob Dylan Renaissance. Whichever one it was, it’s the one he’s still basking and flourishing in (Hyden alludes to the Jokermen podcast to suggest that for some other generation, 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways is also Dylan’s greatest album).
Dylan himself had cited the passing of his friend and hero, Grateful Dead figurehead Jerry Garcia, as one impetus for him to delve into lyrics about mortality, dread, and the loss of close connection. But another tragic figure looms large in the legend of Time Out of Mind’s cross-generational resonance: Kurt Cobain.
A whole lot of us embraced the Nirvana-led boom of underground music and culture as pre- and teenagers, at least partly because it led to us revel in edginess and find beauty in things that had conventionally been categorized as dark, rough, and of marginal significance (or even more harshly, ugly).
We learned to laugh right in the face of smug, domineering confidence and embrace those who exhibited sensitive curiosity, a generosity of spirit, and even insecure modesty.
You don’t know? That’s ok. I don’t know either.
How many strange, distinctively untrained voices rung out with emotive power and soon replaced superficial understandings of what impactful singing could be? What was at the cultural heart of the 1990s if it wasn’t a re-evaluation of all of the bullshit we’d been given in music and film and television, and an elevation of everything that truly questioned and challenged the status quo, and what gatekeepers deemed worthwhile or not?
Indeed, before Cobain got through those gates and looked over his shoulder to motion us forward, Bob Dylan was already through them, often on his own, in a corner, accepted and lauded, but too uncompromising, idiosyncratic, and enigmatically honest for the mainstream to truly exploit. And yet, beyond Nirvana and its ilk gaining credit for obliterating the vapid pretense and phoniness of hair metal and pop stars, their ascendance at least coincided with established Rock Hall-calibre artists (i.e. Neil Young, Tom Waits, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, U2, R.E.M.) realizing that their grittier, more experimental impulses could not only be explored, they may well be rewarded.
Is it a coincidence that the very first edition of Dylan’s hugely influential, humanizing, warts-and-all Bootleg Series was released on March 26, 1991—“the year punk broke,” and changed…well, everything?
I don’t think it’s an accident that in the weird hangover after the likes of Ice-T and the Jesus Lizard and Quentin Tarantino and Seinfeld and Bill Clinton and the Coen Brothers (whose manic live-action cartoon, The Big Lebowski, arguably re-popularized Dylan’s 1970 tune, “The Man in Me”) rose and fell in influence and prominence—each with their own kind of pleasant profanity, disaffection, and questioning cynicism—in the late 1990s, Dylan truly began to be a unifying figure.
On March 25, 2001, almost exactly 10 years to the day after the Bootleg Series first began, Dylan accepted an Oscar for “Things Have Changed” from Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys, by saying, “I want to thank the members of the Academy who were bold enough to give me this award for this song, which obviously is a song that doesn’t pussyfoot around, nor turn a blind eye to human nature.”
He could’ve been talking about any one of his own songs, and also some of the best ones to break through and bother perplexed media executives in the previous decade. “I used to care, but things have changed” felt like Dylan speaking on behalf of the Lollapalooza generation in his rearview, and it got our attention.
Once they got past the clichés about Dylan, 1990s punk, post-hardcore, underground noise, free jazz, blues, and indie-rock fans and musicians, and rebellious filmmakers, comedians, and writers dug into his work, because almost everything that was questioning, sophisticated, outspoken, hopeful, challenging, romantic, angry, and freeing about those subcultures, was conveyed in not just his lyricism and music—it was all right there, in the powerful roar of his voice at this time.
Cobain was labeled a screamer but that always seemed like a dismissal of his emotional power and musicality; goddamn, could that guy locate and hold a note. Cobain and Dylan, both children of Lead Belly, mastering tuneful rage and anguish like nobody else could, for sure (as Dylan sings on “Not Dark Yet,” “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain,” and this makes me think of Bob, but also Kurt).
On Time Out of Mind, you hear Dylan digging so deep into his being to put across his poetry—it’s unearthly, that power, the one his voice pulls from, and it’s a wide-ranging, gorgeous instrument that most mortals could never generate. And in 1997, many more music fans than usual were seeking such voices out and appreciatively grappling with their genuine force.
“He makes the simplest ideas sound so complex and cool,” my first girlfriend told me in her dorm room, after I loaned her Time Out of Mind and she processed its lyrics. She found Dylan to be accessible, and yet somehow also heavy and provocative. This has always stuck with me.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a fragment as “a small piece or a part, especially when broken from something whole.” In a heady time for outsider art, one of its leading proponents re-established himself at the perfect time, armed with an adventurous artistic spirit that for him at least, meant a song was never really done or definable.
“I don’t know.” Well, who does, then? Maybe Bob Dylan, but who is he to say?
With Fragments, you hear Dylan so sure of himself, but surrendering to moments; his vocal attack, melodies, and lyrics are strong and often firmly established but the arrangements—the song’s structures—can never get too comfortable because, like many conventional cultural notions, he views them as indispensably of a time and place. There is freedom in that, and Dylan found some of it in crafting Time Out of Mind, indisputably one of, if not the greatest album he has made yet. (Columbia Records)