June 17, 2024

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CD review: Bob Dylan: Fragments – Time Out Of Mind Sessions (1996-1997): The Bootleg Series – 2023: Video, CD cover

The official story surrounding Time Out of Mind goes something like this: Bob Dylan, stricken by the death of Jerry Garcia and sensing a hellhound on his own trail, turned to his beloved old blues records to exorcise the quickening dread he felt upon realizing that the bell also tolls for Zimmerman.

Dylan, who was only 55 at the time, read his resulting lyrics to producer Daniel Lanois, who was stunned by their unearthly power, and the pair headed into the studio to fashion a record falling somewhere between a seance and a last will and testament.

Like all of the stories surrounding the creation of Bob Dylan albums, this one bears traces of myth and marketing. Typically, his Bootleg Series either subverts received knowledge (Trouble No More, Another Self Portrait) or magnifies legends (More Blood, More Tracks, The Cutting Edge). Fragments might be the first release that manages both. The series can feel overwhelming by design or aimed only at the highest-security-clearance Dylanologists, but Fragments presents us with a clear chronology: Disc One gives us the final studio album, remixed and scrubbed fresh so we can avail ourselves once more of its glorious shadows and submerge ourselves in its delicious mood. The remaining four discs—two of unreleased outtakes, one previously available, and a live set—repositions Time Out of Mind as a rebirth rather than a farewell.

What becomes abundantly clear over the course of the set’s six hours is that Time Out of Mind is primarily the story of a mood, and one ensemble’s single-minded pursuit of it. The making of this album was protracted, painful, and in all ways alive, and the album’s dour countenance was largely the product of theater and shadow. Dylan, ever the role player, was inhabiting a persona, slipping into a black jacket and working the character for fresh angles. Lanois accentuated the gloom and submerged the album in a damp chill of effects pedals and reverb until Dylan seemed to be speaking to us from the beyond. But—as the new mix on Fragments underlines—his baleful pallor was stagehand’s makeup, the gushing blood just red silk scarves.

The story began, appropriately enough, in a picaresque old playhouse Lanois dubbed the Teatro, filled with storybook touches—cob-webbed 16mm projectors, dusty mirror balls. Dylan and Lanois started with looping jams inspired by Charley Patton’s old 78s. Accompanied by bassist Tony Garnier and drummer Tony Mangurian, they built the tracks on top of those primordial beginnings. The mighty, roaring sound that emerged spooked everyone to attention: “The hair on my arms went up,” recalled sound engineer Mark Howard.

But Dylan, predictably, wasn’t settling in. He couldn’t work this close to his home and his family, which, by now, included six children and multiple grandchildren. They decamped instead to Criteria Studio in Miami, a space with a hallowed history (Aretha Franklin’s Young, Gifted and Black, the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach) and the ambiance of an airport security detention center. Lanois, shrugging, packed up all of his priceless tube microphones and moldering tape loops and relocated without complaint to this concrete box. But it was the beginning of a split between the two that would define and nearly overwhelm the sessions. The two stubborn visionaries seemed destined to remain at loggerheads. Lanois rarely spoke to Dylan before and after takes, and entire days unfolded in icy, uncomfortable silence.

Dylan, meanwhile, seemed determined to complicate things as much as possible. He reportedly felt haunted by Buddy Holly, and in tribute, he created his own ghostly version of the Crickets, pulling from his touring lineup, session-player royalty, and beyond. All in all at least 12 musicians found themselves crowded in Criteria, with Bob Dylan as their bandleader (“Two of everything, like Noah’s Ark,” marveled pedal steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar). Dylan would try songs out in different keys, abruptly switching in the middle and expecting the band to remap their own chord progressions without a moment’s hesitation. The playbacks were a disaster, musicians crashing audibly into one another as they struggled to adapt. Lanois, listening with Howard, knew that he might only have a few shots at catching each song before his tempestuous leader grew bored and moved on, so he ordered musicians to simply not play if they couldn’t navigate the changes.

Whatever else was happening in the studio, the musicians achieved a rambling, spacious, loose cohesion. Guitar lines seem to be on the verge of wandering entirely out of sync with the drums only to fall in on beat with a satisfied breath. These are not driving rock numbers, and yet they were three or four drum kits rolling away at any point. The music came on like a big, black thunderhead, rolling forward with guitar echo merging into a clatter of drums.

The unreleased outtakes on Fragments reveal some of the extraordinary moments they littered along the path. On Disc 2’s take on the folk standard “The Water Is Wide,” Dylan leans into the performance as if he might reach out and touch the shoulder of his beloved. It’s as devoted as he ever sounded, and behind him, Garnier and Mangurian play so subtly and understated they register as lighting. Disc 5 gives us the original haunting take of “Can’t Wait” that raised Howard’s arm hairs: Over a hard backbeat, Dylan’s block piano chords and impressively tasty riffing from Lanois, Dylan chews the scenery with the unhinged glee of a Shakespearean actor let loose in a Hollywood blockbuster. The song is mesmerizingly dark, but hearing Dylan bite down with panther’s teeth on “I’m getting old,” it’s easy to conclude that he was feeling nothing but the opposite.

The extra discs yield the usual Bootleg pleasures: The Disc 2 version of “Cold Irons Bound” features stunning alternate lyrics about “stones in the pathway hurled” and “clouds of blood,” while the live versions of “’Til I Fell in Love With You” and “Standing in the Doorway” inflect the songs with sinewy hints of roadhouse blues, soul, gospel. But the true glory of these recordings is witnessing session legends like Mangurian, Jim Dickinson, and Bucky Baxter—giants whose playing pushed the blood through the veins of American song—sound momentarily lost, reverent, uncertain. The performances on Fragments surely represent some of these players’ most unguarded and searching work. Years later, they still spoke of these sessions with a mixture of anxiety and awe.

This lingering unease points to what makes Time Out of Mind special in Dylan’s discography, maybe even singular: More than almost any of his studio albums, it was the product of cult-like group obsession. Everyone from Lanois to Dylan to the phalanx of hired guitarists behaved like people gripped by a shared trance. Sessions stretched to 10 hours while Lanois drove Dylan to try “Not Dark Yet” again in E-flat, then in B-flat, until Dylan finally snapped, “If you haven’t got it now, you ain’t getting it.” Whatever their disagreements or tensions, everyone toiled under the mutual assumption that there were spirits in this material, ones that only they could coax out.

Their struggle centered on two songs—“Not Dark Yet” and, ironically, “Mississippi,” a song written for and left off of the final album. There are multiple versions of both songs littered across Fragments, and it is fascinating to hear them expand and contract, changing shapes and keys and tempos. For Dylan, the song had always been the thing: His catalog had always boasted the folk virtues of pliability. You could speed his songs up, slow them down, throw rock drums behind them or do any old thing, and the songs would remain, somehow, themselves: “Desolation Row” remains recognizably “Desolation Row” on take 5 and Take 13. But something different happens to “Not Dark Yet” and “Mississippi” when the players fiddle with them: They become different songs.

Listening to the evolution of Time Out of Mind’s most beloved song, “Not Dark Yet,” shows how these lurching, unsteady sessions wound up yielding their particular exhausted glitter. The first alternate take is in a different key, sending Dylan’s voice into a higher register and the song into ill-fitting sunlight; it’s a harmless little ramble. The second take, on Disc 3, is slower, and in the same key as the final version. You can hear Dylan’s voice settle into the tired languor that defines “Not Dark Yet.” But although you get a tantalizing glimpse of its potential, the view is blocked by a marching-band triplet fill on the drums and some Hornsby-esque piano trills. It doesn’t feel gloriously endless, as it does in the final studio version; it simply feels long. It wasn’t until the band stumbled into lockstep, all musicians’ frills burned away, that the song’s dark shadow loomed into view.

But the story of Fragments—the story of the album Time Out Of Mind isn’t, but almost was—rests with “Mississippi.” No song undergoes so many fitful revisions. On Disc 2, it’s an uptempo, zydeco-inflected rocker. On Disc 3, the band works it into a gut-wrenching funk that Lanois loved but Dylan rightfully discarded. The definitive version of “Mississippi,” which wasn’t released until 2008 and included on the fifth disc, is suffused with air and light. If “Not Dark Yet” sounded like it was in the beginning stages of evaporation, “Mississippi” felt like fumes itself—far too ethereal and light for Time Out of Mind.

Dylan, with his typical foresight, understood this implicitly. This is why he saved “Mississippi” for 2001’s Love & Theft. Critics and fans hailed that one as a rebirth: here, seemingly, was Dylan riding high, Time Out of Mind’s Edgar Allen Poe rags tossed off in favor of a natty bowler hat and a riverboat gambler’s mustache. But Fragments reveals the truth of the matter: The man who croaked about walking through “streets that are dead” already had his glittering blue eyes on the next horizon.

Bob Dylan: Fragments - Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996-1997): The Bootleg  Series, Vol. 17 Album Review | Pitchfork

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