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Bob Dylan’s “Fragments” Reviewed

Bob Dylan

Fragments (Time Out of Mind Sessions, 1996-1997)

(Columbia, Legacy, Sony Music)

At this point in time, 25 years after the release of the original Daniel Lanois-produced Time Out of Mind, it’s clear that Bob Dylan has sustained a third act to his extensive career. As someone who was born too late to witness his first act first-hand, I became aware of Bob during his rather odd ‘80s period when record production values were diametrically opposed to what Bob did best, which has always been to play music in the moment with near-zero interest in overdubs and studio tech wizardry. 

It always seemed a bizarre pairing. Daniel Lanois, the man who worked to make U2, Peter Gabriel and Robbie Robertson, among others, sound so massive in their echo canyons that their egos were sated and audiences were convinced they’d gone somewhere. However, one couldn’t argue with the results. Bob Dylan made a number of tentative sounding albums in the ‘80s and only the one with Lanois at the end of the decade, 1989’s Oh Mercy, sounded like a complete thought. By the mid-‘90s, Bob appeared to be suffering his first bout of extended writer’s block, releasing two fine acoustic folk and blues collections of songs he’d been singing before his disciples picked up their first guitar. Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong were proof that Bob could do things his way as long as he wanted and be just fine, but Bob had set expectations far higher than ‘just fine.’

When Time Out of Mind was released in 1997, it was proof that the master could still summon his genius when challenged by a producer who understood how to bring the spirits back into the sound. Or at least that’s how it sounded at the time. Dylan expressed discontent with the production. Stories leaked about how stressful the sessions had been and how there were those there who wondered if they’d ever finish or hit daylight. Dylan maintained the production lost the power of what he heard on the studio floor, with a band cooking at full steam and that didn’t need Lanois’ bag of studio tricks.

I was skeptical at the time. From the first distorted vocal of “Love Sick,” it sounded like a marriage made in heaven. It was clear that Bob had written at least a handful of songs that could do battle with his old warhorses. “Love Sick,” “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” and “Not Dark Yet” all had that Dylan feel of Inevitability, that sense that they’d been there the whole time and we just hadn’t gotten around to them. 

But what this latest volume (#17!) of the amorphous Bootleg Series tells us is that the songs not only hold up without Lanois’ effective atmosphere-boosting but that his production was, in fact, at times hiding the chemistry of a great band, as the Michael Brauer remix that is the box’s first disc attests. The aforementioned songs still sound as vital without the distortion and fun house mirrors. Anyone who’s ever thought Dylan can’t sing has the evidence right here that he remains one of our best. The alternate takes of these songs show him trying different angles of attack but always with a sensitivity that his hardcore fans have always known is there. (Think the acoustic takes of “Idiot Wind” from the More Blood, More Tracks collection of complete outtakes from the New York sessions of Blood on the Tracks. It’s this intense!) But what really shines are the songs that arguably got lost in the murk. “Dirt Road Blues” drives like a car on fire. “Million Miles” is what a great band can do when allowed to play unfettered. “Can’t Wait” feels more satisfying in its various incarnations as its lyrics ring louder and clearer. And “Highlands” proves to be a bullet train on the live version provided on CD 4, which shows us the value of taking songs on the road.

This 5CD box, however, is not just Brauer’s remix of the original album. It includes an additional 2CDs of outtakes and alternate versions that feature the proverbial ‘jaw dropping’ rendition of the old folk tune, “The Water Is Wide,” several takes of “Mississippi” and “Red River Shore” that as usual make you question how his Bobness chooses his final rundowns. Both songs have versions here so top-notch that it’s possibly a crime against humanity that they didn’t make the final cut. (OK, “Mississippi” turned up on “Love and Theft” a few years later, but “Red River Shore” wasn’t fully heard until Tell Tale Signs in 2008.) “Dreamin’ of You” and Marchin’ to the City” price as sturdy as any in Dylan’s third act catalog. It should be noted, the 5th CD (considered a ‘bonus’ here, but prices of the set say otherwise) collects the songs from the Time Out of Mind sessions that were first issued as part of Tell Tale Signs, suggesting that a “Love and Theft” sessions box could eventually find its way to market.

Bob, of course, we know now was just getting started. “Love and Theft” followed in 2001 and several lesser but by no means inconsequential albums followed in this tradition, with Tempest featuring some of his most roadworn vocals before he decided to interpret the Frank Sinatra Songbook in his own inimitable way. 2020 gave us Rough and Rowdy Ways, which again feels like another shift in Bob’s attempt at finding ways to use his frayed voice to its best advantage, even if that means hanging on just a few notes and reciting U.S. history back to us as a tale of love and ravage.

What we’ve got here is genius. Joni Mitchell calls him a plagiarist. His five kids likely call him Dad. Songwriters like Darius Rucker (when in Hootie and the Blowfish) and the guy from The War On Drugs pay tribute in their extremely awkward ways. And we can never go wrong sifting through his throwaways. Not like A.J. Weberman hunting through his garbage but as listeners thankful that enough people still care enough to make these efforts worth doing.

If you’re obsessed with Bob Dylan (and if you’ve read this far, you must be) then don’t fiddle with the 2CD sampler, which includes the remixed album and a CD of highlights from CDs 2, 3 and 4, but go for the full 5CD meal. The music is divine and even when it isn’t, it’s still pretty fucking good.

5 Comments

  1. Robert Burrows on February 11, 2023 at 4:55 am

    Are the wavy lines through the text intentional? They make the article unreadable. If someone did this deliberately, they need to find a new line of work.

    • KF on February 11, 2023 at 6:26 am

      What wavy lines?

  2. Lutz-Peter Klose on February 11, 2023 at 7:32 am

    Nice Work

    Greetings from Germany

  3. James O’ Donnell on February 11, 2023 at 8:32 am

    text is fine so is the excellent review

  4. Ric on February 11, 2023 at 12:11 pm

    Reviewing out takes is pointless.

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