In May of 1997, Bob Dylan thought he was having a heart attack. He rushed to the hospital, clutching his chest. He checked in and was told to stay for at least the weekend. Suffering excruciating pain, he thought he would die there.
The prognosis was histoplasmosis pericarditis, an infection caused by the inhalation of certain fungal spores. When inhaled, the fungus proliferates in the lungs and causes the air sacs to fill with fluid. In Dylan’s case, the infection was so severe that it had inflamed the casing around his heart, leaving it porous.
Dylan received treatment and recovered within a few weeks. Just four months later, he released Time Out of Mind. Now, twenty-five years later, we have Fragments, a reissue of the album featuring demos, outtakes, and live performances. It’s the 17th installment of The Bootleg Series, the collection of re-releases that has fed fans’ voracious appetite for glimpses into Dylan’s mysterious creative process. Given the drama leading up to its release, Time Out of Mind has been the subject of particular interest to fans who’ve mythologized it as Dylan’s “death album.”
In truth, the record was nearly finished by the time of his hospitalization, but it’s clear why the album has become so associated with Dylan’s infection. The opener, “Love Sick,” tells, through a labored wheeze, of sickness from heartbreak. “I hear the clock tick,” Dylan spits, questioning how much longer he can fight this illness. In “Trying to Get to Heaven,” he grapples with achieving happiness as the end seems increasingly imminent. He croons, “When you think that you lost everything / you find out you can always lose a little more.”
The album’s explorations of the atrophy of love are despondent. Still, Dylan’s revelations feel flimsy, filled with reluctant corrections and embarrassed retractions. “It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay,” Dylan whines on “Cold Irons Bound,” before turning inward to concede, “It’s sadder still to feel your heart torn away.” On “Standing in the Doorway,” Dylan gruffly accuses his lover: “You left me standing in the doorway crying.” Then, he audibly recoils, “suffering like a fool.” Every song looks cynically outward or bashfully inward, unsure of where to focus.
Augmenting Dylan’s sense of uncertainty, the album teeters between warm ballads and gritty, blues-inflected anthems. “Standing in the Doorway,” is a delicate track, but its comfort is interrupted by “Dirt Road Blues,” a rugged tale of Dylan’s wandering. “Not Dark Yet” is a soft, deathly confession, but Dylan tenses up at his vulnerability with the next song, “Cold Irons Bound,” which resembles a Western soundtrack. Even when he puffs out his chest with these rougher tracks, Dylan exhibits his piercing lyrical sensitivity: “I tried to love and protect you because I cared.” His words show that he isn’t a cowboy—he’s a cowboy-in-training learning how to not give a fuck.
The vocals evoke this synthetic nonchalance, too. Dylan shields himself in a misty apathy, slurring his speech and muttering his wisdom. The tinny distortion of his voice reinforces the listener’s sense of removal, as if he’s being played to you, not singing for you. His voice, though notoriously hoarse, is brittle and thorny on this album, rattling through the burn holes in his lungs.
On the new reissue there’s little that fundamentally changes. No song underwent radical transformation, and it seems that the record’s dark ambiance was well-realized from the start. Most noteworthy are the reissue’s live recordings, which span three years of touring. Here, Dylan’s voice is free from the distortion added to the studio version. Unadulterated by studio tricks, the crisp muddiness of his voice is as clear and affecting as ever.
The live recordings also evince Dylan’s power over his audience, the songs bookended by rapturous applause. Time Out of Mind was his first album of original material in seven years, poised to end a decade-long lull in creative output. Fans’ expectations were high, but their excitement when he managed to exceed them was even higher. As the cymbal rings out to close a performance, prompting an eruption from the audience, one thing is clear: Dylan is back. Or perhaps he never left.