Since 1997’s Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind, Bob Dylan has benefited from increased exposure. 2001’s Love and Theft and 2006’s Modern Times both sold big, there’s a new installment of his groundbreaking Bootleg Series every couple years, and Dylan has contributed new recordings to a number of tribute albums and film soundtracks (“Things Have Changed”, from 2000’s Wonder Boys, won an Academy Award). The sales figures and consistently high quality of his work over the past decade have led critics to rightly declare that Dylan is undergoing a late-career renaissance. All the while, he’s been touring and occasionally shining onstage. And yet The Bootleg Series, other than the original box set, hasn’t acknowledged the fact that, yes, the man’s career has extended past 1975. Until now.
Dylan (or his people, or Columbia) decided now would be a good time to dip into the more recent vaults and right that wrong, and Tell Tale Signs is what they came up with. It’s a 27-track collection of studio and live material dating back to 1989, with the bulk of the studio numbers coming from the Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind sessions. (There’s another version with a third, 12-song bonus disc and a couple of fancy books. Many Dylan fans are pretty upset with Sony over this, and with good reason, since its retail price is about five times that of the regular release. What an absolutely clueless move on Sony’s part, especially in the current economic climate.) The two-disc set comes with a 64-page booklet and liner notes by Larry “Ratso” Sloman, author of On the Road with Bob Dylan, a chronicle of the first Rolling Thunder Revue. As in past Bootleg Series sets, the notes put the contents of the package in the context of Dylan’s career while also discussing the music, and the circumstances of its creation, in detail.
Tell Tale Signs works because it’s neither a clearinghouse for all the stray, officially-released tracks — no “Things Have Changed”, no “Waitin’ for You” or “Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache”, for instance — nor a straight chronological trawl. Instead, it chooses its cards wisely and emphasizes the themes running through Dylan’s work. Musically, it’s the American roots-music stew that he’s always traded in, and which he’s arguably perfected over the past decade or so. (The pre-Time Out of Mind songs here demonstrate that he was on his way, even if he seemed at times to be floundering.) Lyrically, to name but one example, there’s an interesting fascination here with river towns, the women that inhabit them, and the experiences of the body and the spirit that these places and these people have helped shape. Two versions of “Mississippi”, “Red River Shore”, “Huck’s Tune” (named for a character in the film Lucky You, for which the song was written, the title nevertheless recalls Mark Twain), “High Water”, “The Girl on the Greenbriar Shore”, “Miss the Mississippi” and “The Lonesome River” seem to form a non-linear narrative. Like in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Twain’s Hannibal, in Dylan’s river town the narrators and points of view shift, characters drift in and out of focus, and the language has much to offer: “When I kiss your lips / The honey drips / I’m gonna have to put you down for awhile”, or “I’ll ramble and gamble for the one I love / And the hills will give me a song”.
One of the things The Bootleg Series has consistently gotten right is its ability to strike a balance between making records that are interesting for both collectors and casual fans, and making them work as albums. Tell Tale Signs is a great album, perhaps more immediately stunning than Modern Times, a triumph of sequencing and making disparate sounds and sources fit together well. But it’s also a feast for the hardcore Dylan nut.
Perhaps as a result of the creation of The Bootleg Series, there seems to have been a considerable decrease in access to Dylan’s tapes, as the sessions for the post-Oh Mercy albums have barely been illuminated by bootleggers. Oh Mercy, by contrast, has been exposed by so many illicit releases that it’s come to be seen by many as a botched job, as any record that could include but instead omits “Series of Dreams”, “Dignity” and “Born in Time” is bound to be. In seeming acknowledgment of its strong bootleg history, seven Oh Mercy outtakes are included on Tell Tale Signs. “Born in Time”, in particular, suffered when it was rewritten and rerecorded for Under the Red Sky. The original, more beautifully sung and played, less cluttered production-wise, and boasting a better lyric, is evidence of why The Bootleg Series exists, and justice delayed is still justice served. (“God Knows”, the other song skipped over for Oh Mercy and redone on Red Sky, is a lesser song, but rocks a lot harder in its original incarnation.)
The Time Out of Mind sessions are the source of six tracks here, and notable because “Red River Shore”, “Dreamin’ of You” and “Marchin’ to the City” are new titles (none of the Oh Mercy outtakes are genuinely new songs, despite some major lyrical alterations). Inevitably, this will lead some to question whether Time Out of Mind, like Oh Mercy, could’ve been even better. It’s a toss-up, as “Dreamin’ of You” and “Marchin’ to the City” both had sizable chunks of their lyrics integrated into later tunes. Those songs were “Standing in the Doorway”, a masterpiece, and “Til I Fell In Love With You”, a somewhat rote blues exercise, respectively. A few lines from “Marchin'” also wound up in “Not Dark Yet”, one of Dylan’s finest recent compositions. As a window into Dylan’s creative process, hearing these earlier songs is fascinating, and they stand up very well on their own. But the real treat here is “Red River Shore”, a meditative, accordion-driven reflection on lost love that pulls you in and sucks you under over the course of its nearly eight minutes. Again, this is why The Bootleg Series was started in the first place. Sometimes Dylan, for his own reasons, makes decisions about what to put on his records that don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense to the rest of us, and it’s interesting to hear what was discarded and wonder why.
There’s surprisingly little here from the Modern Times sessions, only two songs, and nothing at all from Love and Theft, and it’s anyone’s guess why. In any case, the rest of the tracks come from a variety of sources, including concert recordings. It’s surprising how well the live tracks fit in here. Not thematically, of course — movement and restlessness have been lyrical and lifestyle trademarks of latter-day Dylan — but sonically. The most glaring difference between Dylan’s studio and live recordings is his voice. Where his voice is capable of a range of subtle expressions in the studio, onstage he has a tendency to sound strangled, pained, and frighteningly unclear. The first verse of “High Water” demonstrates this deficiency, as he seems to struggle to remember the beginnings of his lines. The second and subsequent verses, though, find him bending and reshaping his lyrics with a dexterous snarl, and his band turns in a hell of a performance, full of variety and movement, which makes the original, masterful “High Water”, on Love and Theft, sound monotonous in comparison. But the one true misstep of Tell Tale Signs seems to be the repetitive, whiny “Cocaine Blues”, which has no sense of drama or momentum and nothing to recommend it and puts Dylan’s deteriorated concert voice on painful display.
One track out of 27, though, isn’t much to complain about. The reason Tell Tale Signs works so well from start to finish is that all the songs, even those that are modest on their own (“God Knows”, “Miss the Mississippi”), are illuminated by the company they’re in. The covers shine a light on the originals, and especially in the river songs, the line separating Dylan’s own compositions from his source material blurs. It’s all one song, a musical e pluribus unum. Tell Tale Signs is every bit as good as its predecessors, and if there was any lingering question of Dylan’s relevance to contemporary America, if not contemporary American popular music, it can be laid to rest. We are, as always, lucky to have him around.