What did you think you heard when Time Out of Mind arrived in 1997? Was it the diary of a mythic figure, The Bob Dylan, defying time? Or was he jousting with it? Or ruminating on its effects? Was he making a narrative from the ruins of once-sturdy things, or scattering clues while escaping on foot? Was it a creative rebirth, or the exhumation of some long-buried offshoot of folk blues?
The liner notes of Fragments, the 17th installment in Dylan’s Bootleg Series, illustrate just how difficult this intimate yet sprawling work was to pin down when it landed. There are review quotes citing the autumnal poetry and measured, majestic processionals to essentially conclude that the work is Dylan’s “Mortality Album.” By the time the songs soaked in and Time won the Grammy for Album of the Year in early 1998, it had become something else -- “The Immortality Album.”
Now it’s something else all over again.
The original LP, which was produced by Daniel Lanois, is here – but it’s been remixed by Michael H. Brauer to favor clarity over Lanois’ preferred halos and smudges. Somehow, amazingly, the result is more vibey and even more atmospheric: Brauer’s approach tames the reverb and post-production grandeur while retaining (and magnifying) the shimmering trance frequencies that held Dylan and his musicians together in the studio.
The original document is followed by two discs of Outtakes and Alternates. These are essential listening for anyone who pored over Dylan’s meditations on dimming light and fading hope — and walked away wondering how this utterly apt, seemingly alchemic union of text and sound came to be. Short answer: It wasn’t an accident. Dylan went looking for it. He started the exploration with a version of the ancient Scottish folk song “The Water Is Wide,” and from there, he and these keen-eared musicians (mega shoutout to bassist Tony Garnier, one MVP among many here) tried stuff. They clawed and scraped through grooves that Dylan didn’t fully believe in. They smacked the blues around, played uptight and then reversed course to hang way back behind the beat. As they went, Dylan revised lyrics at almost a granular, syllabic level to fit his words to the changing cadences.
Fragments offers the chance to ponder the unglamorous sweat behind the act of creating music – the ways an artist like Bob Dylan molds and reshapes a song’s building blocks until they are no longer recognizable as devices, until they become part of the mysterious analysis-defying aura of a piece. Until an idea is transformed into pure mood.
To hear this, check the several versions of “Mississippi.” Dylan tries out several distinct rhythm approaches, each pitched at its own intensity level. The verses remain largely the same – he knew he caught something wild and true with this one – but as the tempos shift, the words resonate differently, changing from road-song traits to love-song traits and back again. Dylan is locked in a wrestling match with an elusive ideal he hears in his head, and as he goes along – on outtakes first issued on the Bootleg Series Vol. 8 and repeated on Disc 5 here – there’s reason to worry he might not ever capture that “thing.” He didn’t on Time Out of Mind: He set aside all the iterations of “Mississippi” and moved on. And then, during the making of Love and Theft (2001), he went back to it. Old wine, new bottle. That turned out to be the keeper. All it took: Persistence. Belief. And time.
Loved VOL 17. When the album initially came out, it seemed such an event of achievement after a period of lesser wonder from Bob land. It was worth the wait and the live shows featuring these songs breathed a whole new life into the concept of reinterpretation.
As a DeadHead, jazz fan, and outtakes addict the joy of watching the remaking, refining, rebuilding and rethinking a creative perspective is the ever-expansive payoff fo a fan of what makes an artistic statement essential. Thx Moon for always keeping on the lookout for moments of creative transcendence.