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 John Metzger
Wed January 14, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
It may seem crazy, unfair, and unjust, but the fact is that Bob Dylanís leftovers often are better than most artistsí finished products. Largely salvaged from the scrapheap of studio sessions that he held between 1989 and 2006, Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 charts Dylanís journey as he escaped from the wilderness to regain his artistic relevance. The funny thing, though, is that the two-disc compilation demonstrates that his creative resurgence as a songwriter was more of an eruption than a gradual return and that his confidence as a bandleader was all that truly needed to be restored.
If The Bootleg Series has made anything clear, itís that Dylanís work is far from static. In an effort to keep his songs fresh and take advantage of the talents offered by his supporting cast, Dylan often has made a habit in concert of twisting his canon in knots. He routinely abandons well-worn arrangements ó swapping his guitar for piano, for example, or picking up someone who can lace his songs with melancholy licks of pedal steel. Dylan also is prone to keeping his melodies flexible, bending them this way or that, depending upon his mood. Likewise, he frequently alters his annunciation and phrasing as if he is searching for a better way of making his point.
Over the course of the last four installments of The Bootleg Series, fans have been given glimpses into an array of historic moments from Dylanís career: his famous appearance at the Royal Albert Hall in 1966, the Rolling Thunder tour from 1975, an acoustic performance on Halloween in 1964, and a stream of í60s portraits that traced his evolution from folk hero to roots-rocker while also serving as the soundtrack to the Martin Scorsese-directed documentary No Direction Home. The Bootleg Series began, however, as a collection of rarities that chronicled the first 30 years of Dylanís career via an array of alternate versions, outtakes, and concert cuts. Following a similar path, Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 extends into the present the story that was told during the three chapters that composed the initial boxed set.
At first glance, Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 seems to find that Dylan has come full-circle. It opens with a trio of tracks that boast sparse arrangements, and, for all intents and purposes, they could be considered demos: Mississippi sounds as if it had evolved from the sessions that spawned World Gone Wrong and Good as I Been to You, Dylanís enlightening, early í90s collections of folk and blues tunes. Most of the Time is scaled back from the atmospheric production that graced its appearance on Oh Mercy to reveal a song that is a descendant of the material on Blood on the Tracks. Accompanying himself on piano, Dylan transforms Dignity into a powerful hymn.
Until Time Out of Mind burst to the forefront of the publicís consciousness, many people felt that Dylan was lost. In reality, though, he never really had left; instead, he had been hiding in plain sight, searching for the best way to communicate his vision through Daniel Lanois, the producer of Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind. For as bare-bones as they are, the initial trio of cuts from Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 ó Mississippi, Most of the Time, and Dignity ó are quite capable of standing on their own. Taken in sequence at the outset of the endeavor, they frame the entirety of the set, thereby allowing it to illuminate Dylanís creative process from a less familiar perspective ó within the confines of a recording studio. Over the course of Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8, it becomes easy to see how Oh Mercy evolved into Time Out of Mind and how World Gone Wrong and Good as I Been to You fueled both Love and Theft and Modern Times, though even these parallels are too simplistic.
Like the Grateful Dead, Dylan allows his material to assume liquid form; each version of a given tune is nothing more than a snapshot taken at a particular moment in time. He tinkers with lyrics as much as he toys with arrangements, but each change that he makes is measured by how it strengthens not just the song as a whole but also the album into which it eventually will fit. The result of his efforts as portrayed on Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 paradoxically manages to cloud and clarify the meanings that lie behind his words. Like peering into a kaleidoscope, the things that are confusing now inevitably will make sense in the future, and those lyrics that immediately appear to hold only one possible interpretation are guaranteed to burst into a myriad of confounding puzzle pieces somewhere down the road. There are layers upon layers to his works, and depending upon the angle from which they are glimpsed, each becomes a mirror, a window, or a brick wall, allowing or blocking passage to a poemís interior. Such are the mercurial aspects of Dylanís genius. There are insights galore, but nothing is ever quite as it seems.
Following in the footsteps of Modern Times and Time Out of Mind, Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 emphasizes Dylanís ability as a vocalist. While many may scoff at the notion that he can sing at all, these poor souls simply continue to miss the point, refusing to see the forest for the trees. Dylan is, first and foremost, a storyteller in the tradition of the great bards of yesteryear. Painting portraits with the stroke of his pen, he chooses his words carefully. Yet, like the journeyed bluesmen of the early 20th Century, he shapes each lyric with the sound of his voice. He finds meaning in every expression he utters, and then, he alters the way in which it all fits together by playing with his phrasing, lingering on some syllables while rifling through others and ultimately refining the moods of his tales.
It is no wonder, then, that Dylan feels at home performing alongside Ralph Stanley (The Lonesome River) and that he repeatedly gravitates to songs with rich, vibrant histories (32-20 Blues and The Girl on the Greenbriar Shore). His influences stretch far and wide, and they provide fodder for his mind to bend, twist, and warp into something new. Consequently, developing an understanding of their past helps to provide context for Dylanís present. In his world, everything is timeless, and everything is connected.
Because it focuses entirely on his recent output and avoids the material that made him an iconic legend, Tell Tale Signs accomplishes something that the first seven chapters in The Bootleg Series did not: It provides a clearer view of how Dylan operates. In many ways, his songs are his children. Like reincarnated souls, they are all born in the moment, completely intact. Yet, based upon the level of guidance that they receive, they can be brought to maturity with dramatically different outcomes. Dylan isnít always certain how best to meet their needs, but he approaches them with confidence, knowing that if he provides the proper framework, he can help them find their niche. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 is
available from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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