Fragments - Time Out of Mind sessions (1996 - 1997)
'Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age'.
‘Dockery and Son’ - Philip Larkin
When Philip Larkin wrote ‘Dockery and Son’ (‘The Whitsun Weddings’, 1964), Bob Dylan was merely a young and freewheeling singer-songwriter, an artist that was only just starting to stretch the perimeters of what could be possible with popular music. Jazz-loving Larkin may have heard Dylan but (and it's only my assumption), he may have been baffled and possibly underwhelmed by his work. If Larkin were to have been visited by some messenger from the future, he would very likely have baulked at the notion that the young singer would still be making music well into his late seventies and would have been horrified at the idea that he would one day be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. One thing that may have consoled the poet was that the pop star would make one of the finest records of his career at the tender age of 55, an album that dealt with the absence of love, aging, and death...all very Larkinesque topics.
That album, ‘Time Out of Mind’, released in 1997, is now the basis of 'Fragments', the seventeenth edition of Dylan's 'Bootleg' series. It is the record that made Dylan appear relevant again, no longer just part of the musical past that could only be appreciated via archival trips to the record library or hefty features in monthly music magazines. Dylan was no longer playing to an increasingly bewildered and exasperated gallery and, thankfully, those conversations about when he last made a great album were put on hold.
Prior to ‘Time out of Mind’ Dylan had appeared lost. He’d released two albums of traditional folk songs in the wake of the “disheartening” (according to Rolling Stone, and that’s one of the kinder remarks) 'Under The Red Sky'. There was an initial caution at the prospect of Dylan writing again, but those concerns were soon assuaged by the immediacy of the songs. The love (and broken love) songs were unambiguous, the symptoms of ‘Love Sick’ are universal, and although it may seem petulant to declare (on ‘Standing in the Doorway’) that ‘(I) don't know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you, It probably wouldn't matter to you anyhow,’ we know those wildly contradictory feelings.
If you follow the given narrative of the creation of the album, Dylan had been so troubled by the death of his friend Jerry Garcia (of the Grateful Dead), that it resulted in some of the album's most famously sombre death related lyrics. Although there may be a degree of Dylan’s myth-making in this, it does have some credence. Without wanting to get too existential about this, there is the notion that when somebody becomes aware of the reality of death, they may feel inclined to make the most of the opportunities around them. As an artist, this may result in the shift from Larkin's boredom (and how bored to his boots does most Dylan sound on much of his 80s and 90s output?) to fear. And in that shift, whilst contemplating ‘age, and then the only end of age', an artist may just make some of their finest work (see that other Dylan collaborator – Johnny Cash, whose ‘American Recordings’ show how an artist can deliver some of their very best work right up to the end!). The directness of the album's most re-quoted line: ‘It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there’ line (‘Not Dark Yet’) still sends shivers. Despite its blurry front cover, ‘Time Out of Mind’ is one of Dylan’s most focused records.
If there was one criticism frequently levelled at ‘Time Out of Mind’ upon release it was that Daniel Lanois’ production was a little too smooth for a supposedly blues-inspired record. Those atmospheric textures that were a signature of Lanois’ work on albums by U2, Peter Gabriel, and another one of Dylan’s former colleagues – Robbie Robertson, were less appropriate here. It appears that Dylan wasn’t that in awe of the finished product either (I won’t go into the accounts of how Lanois and Dylan fought during the creation of the record – you can read that elsewhere), and thus the first disc of ‘Fragments’ is not only a new remix of the entire album, but Lanois’ production credits have also been quietly removed. Those amends are subtle but effective, Dylan’s voice feels crisper, you can identify the individual instruments of the stellar ensemble of musicians. Although you may strain to hear some of the alterations, the clearness of the new mix of ‘Can’t Wait’ reveals a gritty and, yes, bluesy song it is. The new mix of the aforementioned ‘Not Dark Yet’ may be the most striking of all the new versions, although the de-hazed ‘Make You Feel My Love’ seems unfinished in its new state.
For those who are eager to hear these songs in their rawest form, the second disc of early and alternative takes is a genuine joy. The first take of ‘Love Sick’ is stark and all the more powerful for it, the initial version of ‘Til I Fell In Love With You’ is almost unrecognisable from the more familiar take, a reminder of how Dylan’s songs can frequently metamorphose before they end up on the record (I take it that you’ve all heard the twenty different takes of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’? You have, haven’t you?). But it’s the original take of ‘Can’t Wait’ that feels so much closer to what you imagine Bob intended, a dark tale that shifts from quiet desperation to fever and delirium. There’s the reminder of mortality in the lines ‘The end of time has just begun’ and ‘I’m strolling through the lonely graveyard of my mind’. It now feels a lot closer in feel to the album's opening song, he’s so sick of love, but he’s still in the still in the thick of it…
One of the oddest exclusions from 'Time Our of Mind' but now included on 'Fragments' are the five different versions is the excellent 'Mississippi' (it later re-emerged as a more country-tinged number of 'Love and Theft' in 2021), but here it's a bluesy romp. Of all the takes, Version 2 is near perfect, one can only assume that it was too breezy for inclusion. An even stranger omission is the regret-filled acoustic ballad 'Red River Shore'. A tale of lost love and the sense of wasted time ('...the sun went down on me a long time ago'), that would have sat so perfectly on the record. And such a sad accordion outro too!
Of 'Fragments' disc of live recordings, it's a joy to hear songs from shows that I was actually at. A rough recording of 'Love Sick' from a show in Birmingham in June 1998 is similar to the album version, but by the time we reach September 2000, his maudlin reworking of 'Trying to Get to Heaven' is a curiosity that baffled me then and baffles me still. On the train journey to the show, a group of more seasoned Dylan gig-goers were discussing the times that they'd seen Bob deconstruct a familiar number and rebuild it as something utterly complex and strange. They could now add this to their list
Elvis Costello once described 'Time Out Of Mind' as Dylan's best album. He may have been trying to be contrary, clever, or controversial by this but it's easy to understand how, after such a creative drought (Dylan, not Costello), the record would have seemed so overwhelming to the keener listener. And although it's impossible (and extremely foolish), to select one Dylan album as his definitive best, I'll settle for it just being my favourite. What 'Fragments' shows is that despite its protracted creation these songs were worth fighting over, they are the ones that mark a new chapter in Dylan's writing. And when I hear the remorse that runs the sprawling 'Highlands' (three versions here!), especially in the lines where he admits that 'Some things in life it gets too late to learn,' and how he'd trade places with any of the young and happy people in the park '...in a minute if I could', I think of Philip Larkin and know in my heart that if he could have heard the older version of Bob Dylan, he would understand, and he would approve.