Tell Tell Signs: The Bootleg Series, v. 8 – Bob Dylan
Tell Tale Signs, the eighth and latest volume in Bob Dylan’s venerable Bootleg Series, is a memory dump: 38 bits of odds, ends, and stray tendrils recorded since volume three left off in 1989. The period since saw (ohmigod, surprise!) Dylan reinvent himself, recording albums of prophetic folk in 1992 and 1994, rejoining Daniel Lanois to rise from the swamp in the guise of a debased gentleman on 1997’s Time Out of Mind, strolling the same character down the high road on 2001’s "Love and Theft", and doing some kinda marginally successful variant on 2006’s Modern Times. With a booklet filled with pictures of Dylan looking gaunt in cowboy hats, neckerchiefs, string ties, and open-collared shirts, one wonders if Tell Tale Signs will represent any type of complete period, if Dylan possibly has the creative strength to come up with another new shtick, some new costumes/sunglasses, for the post-Dubya world and make Tell Tale Signs any type of definitive bookend.
Probably not, but who cares, eh?
Released officially as double-CD, there is also a three-disc version that costs $113 (that, for some reason, comes with a book featuring art from Dylan's singles), and which is probably better just to download. The music sounds exactly like outtakes, but—in Dylanology—these are sacred texts. Primary sources. At the center of Tell Tale Signs’ republic is "Mississippi," the "Love & Theft" song which appears in three radically different forms from the Time Out Of Mind sessions, including a lovely near-solo acoustic reading where the melody becomes a thing of sweetness, as well as two versions of an arrangement which Dylan once accused producer Daniel Lanois of trying to go "the Afro-polyrhythm route" to make it "sexy, sexy, and more sexy" ("things got contentious once in the parking lot"). Go figure, Dylan was right—though one can certainly see what Lanois was getting at.
Rivers are central, too. On Jimmie Rodgers' "Miss the Mississippi"—recorded at a 1992 session with David Bromberg abandoned to make Good as I Been To You—Dylan effortlessly nails a laid-back summer eve, aided by Dick Fegy and Jeff Wisor’s trickling mandolins, and a practically ambient mariachi horn arrangement. "Red River Shore," meanwhile, borders on epic, a seven-minute faux-traditional number from the Time Out Of Mind dates. Again, though, one can see where (maybe) it went wrong. Neither the main outtake, nor the alternate cut on the $113 disc, manages to maintain the necessary mystery to qualify next to Dylan’s most sustained and weird originals in decades. Still, it’s pretty sweet, and gives one of several openings into Dylan’s creative process, the song’s oomph borrowed from traditional "The Girl from the Greenbriar Shore," included in a live version from 1992, and a small fragment of lyric/melody ("pretty maids all in a row lined up outside my cabin door") lifted whole from Stephen Foster’s "Hard Times" ("many days you have lingered outside my cabin door"), included on Good As I Been To You.
Elsewhere, Dylan writes and rewrites. "My back to the sun because the light is too intense/I can see what everybody in the world is up against," he sings on an alternate version of Time Out Of Mind’s "Can’t Wait," lines recycled for 2001’s "Sugar Baby." On "Dreamin’ Of You"—an outtake from (waitforit!) Time Out Of Mind—he sings "church bells are ringing, I wonder who they’re ringing for," repurposed elsewhere on the same album, on "Standing in the Doorway." If it seems like the bulk of the material is from Time Out Of Mind—10 cuts on three discs—that’s not entirely true. There are also 10 tunes from Oh Mercy. It’s just that—give or take the solo acoustic version of that album’s "Most of The Time"—Time Out of Mind really does represent the best of an incredibly fertile period in Dylan’s career, so much that Tell Tale Signs could probably be boiled to a second disc in an expanded release of the 1997 disc. Screw that, though. More Bob for the people! As some British dude in the crowd says at the end of a live-in-London version of "Tryin’ To Get To Heaven" on the $100 disc: "fuckin’ lovely."