Bob Dylan is well-known for his abandoned treasures -- all those unreleased recordings from the past 40-plus years that have made his ongoing Bootleg Series such a mind-blowing trove. Dylan likely had little trouble leaving those moments behind, treasures or not; he's always been wary of letting his past prejudice his here and now. This newest collection of rare recordings, though, is something apart: The alternate studio takes, undisclosed songs, movie tracks and live performances that make up the three discs of Tell Tale Signs (also available as a two-disc package) depict Dylan's development from 1989 to 2006 -- which is to say they're closer to Dylan's here and now than any earlier volumes. Also, Tell Tale Signs is less an anthology than an album in its own right. It seems designed to tell a story that sharpens and expands the vista of mortal and cultural disintegration that has been the chief theme of Dylan's 1997's Time Out of Mind, 2001's Love and Theft and 2006's Modern Times -- perhaps the most daring music he's ever made. Tell Tale Signs makes plain that Dylan knows the caprices of the world he lives in, now more than ever.
Just as important, this collection bears witness to Dylan's reclamation of voice and perspective. He had been a singular visionary who upended rock & roll by recasting it as a force that could question society's values and politics, but he relinquished that calling as the society grew more dangerous. By the end of the Eighties, he had undergone so many transformations, made so many half-here and half-there albums, that he seemed to be casting about for a purpose. What did he want to say about the times around him? Did he have a vision anymore or just a career? The singer drew a new bead on these concerns with 1989's Oh Mercy, produced by Daniel Lanois. Dylan has said he was never fully satisfied with the album, but given that Tell Tale Signs features 10 tracks from Oh Mercy's sessions, it's clear its tunes mattered to him.. . .
If Dylan's songs were once protests looking for rectification -- if his language was once phantasmagoric and tricky to decipher -- well, that was wonderful, but things have changed. Tell Tale Signs sets a new milestone for this American artist. Dylan has always written about morally centerless times, but this collection comes from a different perspective --not something born of the existential moment but of the existential long view and the courage of dread. Jack Fate, Dylan's character in "Masked and Anonymous," intones what might work as the précis for this album: "Seen from a fair garden, everything looks cheerful. Climb to a higher plateau, and you'll see plunder and murder. Truth and beauty are in the eye of the beholder. I tried to stop figuring everything out a long time ago." For a long time, we've asked Dylan to deliver us truths. Now that he has, we need to ask ourselves if we can live with them.
The eighth installment of Dylan's Bootleg Series covers the years spanning
his 1989 return to form with Oh Mercy up to the present day, a period in
which he managed to conquer a long-standing blight of writer's block,
establish himself as the pre-eminent repository of American roots-music
forms, and ultimately find the route to the Indian summer of Time Out of
Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times.
It's a remarkable collection, as racked with doubt and disillusion as one
might expect, yet defiantly exposing the vulnerabilities and irritations
that provoke pearls such as "High Water" and "Ain't Talkin." The former is
featured here in a tremendous live version, funky and fetid, the kind of
re-imagining that sustains fans through years of fallow performances,
while the latter landmark, the singer's most absorbing State of the Union
address for years, is delivered with more swagger than the Modern Times
version; Dylan not so much walkin' as struttin', the song taking on a new
character, more purposive than reflective.
That's perhaps the most radical example here of the way Dylan's art is
kept constantly in flux, the illumination of which is the greatest virtue
of the Bootleg Series. The alterations of lyrics, tempo, arrangements and
delivery re-cast these songs as refracting prisms, whose meaning changes
according to where the light hits. Take the simple, more urgent solo
version of "Most of the Time," which could be from Another Side Of Bob Dylan
were it not for Dylan's deeper vocal intonation.
The offical Bob Dylan website is archiving the reviews and providing excerpts from them and links to them if you want to check them out: