I heard Time Out Of Mind’s miracle on a preview cassette in a friend’s parked car, our jaws dropping to at least four plainly great songs from a hero who’d seemed spent. Then there was Daniel Lanois’s production: an inescapable, miasmic atmosphere thicker yet than his work on Oh Mercy, technologically mutating the echoing ’50s sound Dylan had requested. Twenty-five years on, “Standing In The Doorway”, “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, “Not Dark Yet” and “Highlands” are still peaks, and Lanois’s work still sometimes tips from essential to overwhelming, just as he and Dylan fiercely wrestled for control during the record’s fraught Miami sessions.
Fragments, the new five-disc Bootleg Series excavation of those sessions, reimagines Time Out Of Mind in a Michael Brauer remix which strips away Lanois’s arguable excesses, leaving it closer, it’s claimed, to how the music sounded in the room. It also disinters initial, autumn 1996 sessions at Lanois’s funky Teatro home studio in Oxnard, California, discovering mind-blowing sketches for a radically different, R&B-flavoured album, its death-haunted lyrics less important than Dylan’s lusty exuberance at his creative rebirth. Seemingly lesser songs now dance from the speakers, reborn.
Fragments also traces the work’s January 1997 shift in Miami towards its final form, adds Never-Ending Tour reimaginings of the songs and, in a fifth disc, relevant tracks already released on Tell-Tale Signs. That collection’s motherlode of great unreleased songs seems exhausted, the Bootleg Series now instead focusing on showing facets of Dylan’s many jewels in a new light.
It’s a moot point just how stripped back this remix really is, as Dylan’s voice retains a Sun Studio echo, and the same worked-over takes are used. The album’s vinyl incarnation also anyway steered much closer to the jumping ’50s sound Dylan wanted. Here, though, lost verses return, and that voice is the absolute focus – driven on by massive drums on “Love Sick”, left still more bereft on “Standing In The Doorway” and upfront in its gorgeous articulation of disaffection on “Not Dark Yet”.
“Dirt Road Blues”’ skipping roadhouse groove is bettered by “Million Miles”’ slinky urban simmer, its cymbals’ jazzy, crystalline glint and rock’n’roll guitar’s rough, metallic grain sounding like a Shadow Kingdom refit. The drums then stormily whip up “Cold Irons Bound”, Dylan seeing “nothing but clouds of blood” in this version. “Make You Feel My Love” is a glorious gospel ballad carried by hushed organ, “Can’t Wait” is sexy, funky and funny with a steam-hammer beat. “Highlands”, enlivened by spectral touches of wild mercury guitar, reveals its unsuspected, close connection to more phantasmagoric mid-’60s epics, as he follows “the snap of the bow” into the titular, mythic hills.
Discs 2 and 3 detail the sessions that led to this, opening with the Oxnard “Dreamin’ Of You”, wildly different to both its Tell-Tale Signs take and evolution as “Standing In The Doorway”. Now Dylan sounds like an Al Green loverman in a dimly lit club as dawn breaks, and feels like “a ghost in love”. “I squandered the years of my youth,” he finally confesses. “It’s a scary thing, the truth.” “The Water Is Wide” switches to a humbly prayerful folk vocal, and “Red River Shore (Version 1)” sounds straight off The Basement Tapes, Dylan deliberately choosing from a wealth of styles.
The R&B mood then returns in Miami. “Not Dark Yet (Version 1)” is more unbelievable yet, up-tempo Memphis country-soul with Willie Mitchell-style guitar. “Nah, it’s not dark yet,” Dylan decides.
“Can’t Wait (Version 1)” is a mighty take, the band meeting Dylan’s rasping roar with smashing drums. Excised lyrics are equally majestic, cutting to Time Out Of Mind’s heart: “Well my back is to the sun because the light is too intense/ I can see what everyone in the world is up against”; and, “I’m getting old/ Anything now can happen to anyone.” People revere Dylan’s 1979-80 ‘Gospel’ shows, captured on the Bootleg Series’ Trouble No More. His blues and soul singing here is still more fiercely potent, these session performances ranking among his very best.
“Cold Irons Bound” is good Lanois sonic weirdsville, guitars and keyboards blurring. “Make You Feel My Love (Take 1)” already sounds like an AOR classic Clapton would kill for, studio applause breaking out at Dylan’s sensitive balladeer singing. As the sessions progress towards their familiar destination, interest inevitably falls away. On “Not Dark Yet (Version 2)”, the tone we know locks tights, as Dylan finally accepts his words’ deathly weight.
The live disc draws strongly on what sound like audience recordings of Dylan’s landmark 2000 tour, when his voice and intent were at their strongest for years. Birmingham’s “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” is unrecognisable, of course, refashioned as the sort of lacily delicate old-time ballad “Love And Theft” would soon introduce. Nashville ’99’s “Can’t Wait” adds a reggae lope to its funk, Dylan pushing his voice hysterically high. Last comes “Highlands” in Newcastle, Australia in 2001, a shaggy-dog talking blues told in stand-up nightclub fashion, so jauntily uptempo it shaves six minutes from the album.
No one thought that Dylan would make one of his finest albums in 1997 (or maintain that hot streak for the next quarter-century). No one thought, either, that the outtakes from such sessions could fill a compelling, sometimes revelatory box set. But here it is.