Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8
John Metzger's #2 album for 2008
Douglas Heselgrave's #6 album for 2008
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2009, Volume 16, #1
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed January 28, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
Has the output of any other artist in the history of popular music been bootlegged more than work of Bob Dylan? Indeed, at certain points in time during the 1960s, unauthorized recordings like Little White Wonder were outselling major-label releases like Highway 61 Revisited. While unofficial albums by popular artists such as The Beatles and the Rolling Stones have been available for just as long, most of these outings simply feature live material or provide faint, behind-the-scenes glimpses into the studio sessions that produced the bandsí classic songs.
The bootlegs that have been devoted to Dylanís efforts, however, are different animals entirely. Because of his spontaneous and sometimes anarchic recording process, Dylanís songs morph and change from moment to moment, and the best of his unauthorized products provide prismatic views of the seemingly infinite permutations that his material can take. His compositions arenít written and layered in the studio as much as they are spontaneously spat out and explored.
Reveling in their idolís creative process, obsessive fans have established a parallel, musical universe in which Dylanís demos and alternate versions have formed a liturgy that comments on the gospel of the official songs. They have created and read subtexts of meaning into these versions that are so Byzantine and complex that any artistís body of work would buckle under their weight. Dylanís own protests ó that he is just a craftsman trying to ply a trade ó have fallen on deaf ears, and the fame he achieved so early in life unfortunately created a huge vortex of expectation that forced him to create all of his subsequent outings within a fish bowl.
Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 covers a 16-year period from 1989 to 2005, a time during which Dylan recorded Oh Mercy, Under the Red Sky, Good as I Been to You, World Gone Wrong, Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and, his most recent foray, Modern Times. The story that emerges from the material that was compiled by Jeff Rosen, Dylanís manager and friend, is that of an artist who has turned his back on expectation to rediscover something new and vital in his own work via an exploration of the folk and blues songs that originally had inspired him. While listening to this amazing collection, one can hear the death of the 1960s icon as well as the welcome emergence of the archaic revivalist. When F. Scott Fitzgerald declared that "there are no second acts in American lives," he obviously hadnít envisioned the existence of Bob Dylan.
By the middle of the 1980s, which directly precedes Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8, Dylan had hit the wall. After three fiery and inspired albums from what has been called his "Christian period," he clearly was trying to reconnect with a core audience that had turned his back on him. Featuring an all-star cast that included Mark Knopfler as well as Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Infidels contained some good songs, but the overall feeling of the endeavor was tentative and unsure. The outings that followed it ó Knocked Out Loaded, Empire Burlesque, and Down in the Groove ó had a few worthwhile moments, but it was hard not to believe that Dylan had lost his confidence and direction.
To paraphrase a line from Mississippi ó a song that appears twice on the endeavor ó Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 is the story of how Dylan faced down his path, pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and worked his way out of the corner into which he had painted himself. The first part of this story takes place in 1989 when Dylan, at the suggestion of Bono, connected with Canadian producer Daniel Lanois and tried to pen a new batch of songs. At first, the sessions were difficult, and Lanois was required to challenge Dylanís torpor and lethargy by forcing performances out of him. As time went on, though, Dylan reconnected with his Muse and wrote several songs in quick succession ó Political World, Ring Them Bells, and Shooting Star, among them.
Working in an old house in New Orleans that had been converted into a recording studio, Lanois found a way to capture the changes in Dylanís voice so that they sounded like a strong and conscious choice rather than a concession to the ravages of time. Dylanís embarrassing wheeze became a nuance-filled croak-and-roar that expressed the truth in his new work in a manner that had eluded him for many years. In addition, the musical ambience that Lanois helped to sculpt allowed for minimalist arrangements that supported the directness in Dylanís latest batch of lyrics. The two versions of Most of the Time from Oh Mercy featured on the deluxe, three-disc edition of Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 outline Dylanís struggle as he moved away from melodic and instrumental structures that had become clichť for him and embraced an open-ended style of performance.
The song that has been discussed most frequently from the sessions for Oh Mercy has to be Dignity. The two versions that are included on Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 ó along with the renditions featured on Greatest Hits, Volume 3 and Unplugged ó attest to the high regard in which many fans hold the tune. Yet, one of the reasons that Oh Mercy was such a great album was that Dylan wisely chose to omit Dignity from the effortís final track listing.
In Dignity, one can hear every aspect of the cage into which Dylan had become confined. If he ever was going to be successful in reinventing himself, he had to turn his back on songs like this. Dignity sounds awkward and self-conscious ó as if Dylan had been dipping too heavily into his own bag of tricks to come up with a cut that would please his old fans. It has all the elements that first generation Dylan fans love ó surrealistic lyrics, literary word play, and the kind of epic, kaleidoscopic story that wouldnít have been terribly out of place on Highway 61 Revisited. There is no doubt that Dignity is an elegant and literate song, but in the end, it pointed to his past, not toward the musical future for which Dylan clearly was aiming.
Within the songs that he penned after Dignity, one can hear the story of how Dylan saved his artistic life and made himself relevant again. Perhaps the best indication of this sea change can be uncovered by comparing Dignity with the versions of Mississippi that appear on this set. Mississippi originally was slated for Time Out of Mind, though it didnít find a home on one of Dylanís albums until his 2001 collection Love and Theft. Nevertheless, the issuance of these alternate renditions makes it obvious as to the direction in which Dylan was headed.
In short, Mississippi and most of the songs that followed it sound like reflections from real life and not simply artistic exercises in brilliant wordplay. The naturalness of the dialogue and ruminations in Mississippiís traveling narrative reflect a singer who is comfortable and at home with his material, which is something Dylan hadnít been for quite a few years. Finally, the way in which Dylan sings the tune shows that he had transcended the fate of becoming an aging Elvis who had tried to squeeze into a sequined suit that was too confining.
Unfortunately, the road from Oh Mercy to Time Out of Mind wasnít entirely smooth. On Under the Red Sky, the album that immediately followed Oh Mercy, Dylan did nothing to capitalize on the gains he had made. Like all of his efforts, Under the Red Sky had a few good moments, but tracks like TV Talking Song still sprang from a singer who was willing to fall back on old narrative patterns and coast through recording sessions. Nevertheless, the alternate version of Born in Time that appears on Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 highlights some of the missed potential that characterizes the material that emerged from this period.
Following the poor reception of Under the Red Sky, Dylan again contemplated retirement before recording two of the most unusual albums in his canon ó Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. Both of these releases were recorded in Dylanís home studio, and they represent an artist who was attempting to come to terms with his place in musical history by reinterpreting blues and folk classics for a new generation of listeners. Rather than sounding like someone who was biding his time while waiting to reconnect with his own music, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong were ferociously raw albums that have aged well. They also provided a better indication of what fans soon would hear from Dylan than many fans knew at the time.
32-20 Blues and Mary and the Soldier ó the latter track appears only on the deluxe edition of Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 ó were culled from the World Gone Wrong sessions, and they reflect the archaic universe and blues lexicon that Dylan was obviously so interested not just in exploring but also in bending to suit his own artistic purposes. The blues as envisioned by Dylan on Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong is the darkest, most potent expression of the form that has ever been committed to tape by a major artist. The polite, white-boy, dilettante-ism of Eric Clapton and John Mayall is nowhere in evidence here. Years later, these two records sound jarring and vital, and they definitely paved the way for the triumphant return to form that Dylanís subsequent studio albums represented.
Much has been made of how Dylan has used lines, titles, and melodies from blues classics as the basis for many of his new songs. Some critics have felt that this is the final proof needed that Dylan is over-the-hill and should pack it in. Such assessments not only completely miss the point, but they also show an ignorance of Dylanís purpose in borrowing from the greats. Certainly he knows that his source material is indelibly etched in American musical history, and in creating his new works, he has made no attempt to disguise his debt to the likes of Charley Patton and Blind Willie McTell.
Artists throughout history have borrowed from antiquity to create an unbroken, creative line that stretches from the dawn of time to present day. Authors, lyricists, poets, and playwrights ó from Shakespeare to John Keats, and from Ezra Pound to Allen Ginsberg ó always have created poems full of allusions to classical themes, which makes it difficult to understand why people have given Dylan such a hard time for referring to blues and folk milestones. This material ó as Dylan famously said in an interview with Newsweek in 1997 ó is his religion and his lexicon. The versions of tunes like The Girl from the Red River Shore, Someday Baby, and Ainít Talkiní that are featured on Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 demonstrate how deeply entrenched Dylanís art is in the cultural side-streams of American song. Perhaps the best example of Dylanís new/old musical style can be found in The Lonesome River, a duet with Ralph Stanley that originally appeared on Clinch Mountain Country. Hearing these two icons travel from their individual musical corners to meet by the banks of the river evokes moods that are yearning, poetic, and heartbreaking. Has a more economical and perfect song ever been recorded?
Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 also contains several key live versions of Dylanís newer compositions. Of these, the rendition of Cold Irons Bound is the most crucial. The song originally appeared on Time Out of Mind, though it provided only the barest indication of where Dylan and his band would take the tune in concert. Few listeners will be prepared for the metallic evisceration of the lyrics that he spits out here. Like Blind Willie Johnson with the hounds of Hell lapping at his heels, Dylan gives a vocal performance that threatens to open a chasm in the Earth that will swallow him whole. This six-minute track is the highest point of all in his recorded output. Singers from Tom Waits to Screaminí Jay Hawkins would die to be able to belt it out like this even once in their lifetimes.
In the end, one canít recommend Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 enough. Old fans will love the insight that the demo versions provide into Dylanís creative process, and younger listeners will realize that Dylan is not a has-been who should be relegated to í60s-focused compilations and nostalgia-oriented radio stations. Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 is a vital, screaming collection of songs, and it is one of the best outings of 2008.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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