[Author's Note: As before, here are the notes I took while listening to Tell Tale Signs and on which I based my review. There is nothing remotely polished about these notes. They reflect minute-by-minute impressions of the songs. There is, however, a lot here that did not make it into the review, if you really, really want to know what I thought of the album.]
Tell Tale Signs
*Mississippi [Unreleased, Time Out]. "Numbered days" theme of later work. Beautiful, simple, acoustic take in contrast to much of Time Out. One can see how from a producer's standpoint (Lanois's), this might be musically "pedestrian," but this is lovely. Lyrics full of love, gratitude, wisdom, and age. Bob Dylan at his most human. Vaguely Carpe Diem. Favorite lines: "All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime / Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme";
"Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drownin' in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me";
"My clothes are wet, tight on my skin / Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in"; "Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay / You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way."
COMPARE TO TAKE ON LOVE AND THEFT.
Most of the Time [Alt., Oh Mercy]. In terms of music and instrumentation, very much like pre-electric Dylan, acoustic guitar and harmonica. Only his voice dates the song accurately. Very much less produced, again, than Lanois wanted and was eventually released. Lyrically, almost an update on "Blood on the Tracks," a view of love farther in retrospect. Each repetition of "most of the time" alludes to the frailty that undermines the general sense of wholeness. Less emotionally charged, more bare than album take.
Dignity [Piano Demo, Oh Mercy]. Lyrics considerably different from version released on Greatest Hits 3. Not a revelation, per se.
Someday Baby [Alt., Modern Times]. DRAMATICALLY different from the blues of the album. Sounds something like a march of self-empowerment in the wake of the hurt in love described. Lyrics substantially different. Might not have felt right on Modern Times--right call on passing this take over. "Living this way ain't a natural thing to do / Why was I born to love you?"
Red River Shore [Unreleased, Time Out]. Lanois (I'm guessing it's his doing) has this song all decked out in an interesting rhythmic pattern, which is welcome, and accordion, which isn't. Another song of long-ago love. Fine, formally perfect, but nothing to write home about. Best part is the last verse:
"Now, I've heard of a guy who lived a long time ago
A man full of sorrow and strife
Whenever someone around him died and was dead
He knew how to bring 'em on back to life
Well, I don't know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing anymore
Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all
'Cept the girl from the Red River shore"
Tell Ol' Bill [Alt., North Country Soundtrack]. Catchy, bouncy, dark melody--chunky piano, understated guitar, very effective. Suits the similarly troubled lyrics perfectly. Musically, it could be a jazz/pop song from the first half of the 20th century. "You trampled on me as you passed / Left the coldest kiss upon my brow."
Born In Time [Unreleased, Oh Mercy]. Radically different lyrics from version on Red Sky. Impassioned, melodically inventive for Dylan, but the lyrics don't do much at all. Manages to sound trite and contrived, consigned to a less successful album.
Can't Wait [Alt., Time Out]. Again, substitutes entirely new verses for the ones that made the album. "I've been living on lame excuses"--there's a good line that didn't make Time Out.
Everything Is Broken [Alt., Oh Mercy]. Gleeful catalogue of broken things, little more. This is "Obviously Five Believers"-type Dylan. Actually would have worked pretty well on Blonde on Blonde (Lanois's dark, echoey production excepting).
*Dreamin' Of You [Unreleased, Time Out]. Very nice dark ambience with just the right bit of drive-force behind it, exactly what Lanois was good at. I don't see why this didn't make the album--this is excellent, and would have held its own with the best of the selected material. Another song of a man driven to desperation in visions of the "you" to whom the song is addressed: "Even if the flesh falls off my face / It won't matter as long as you're there."
Huck's Tune [Lucky You Soundtrack]. Country ballad. Lyrics fall somewhere between silly and brilliant. Like this: "All the merry little elves / Can go hang themselves / My faith is as cold as can be." Also typical age concerns: "I count the years / And I shed no tears / I'm blinded to what might have been." Through the prism of setting aside a problematic relationship. I like it.
Marchin' to the City [Unreleased, Time Out]. His voice sounds better than it did a decade later when you make that jump track to track! Slow, simple blues, shaped by piano and spidery Lanois-style organ, and shaded with subtle gospel stylings. The lyrics are quite interesting. "Loneliness got a mind of its own / The more people around, the more you feel alone"; "I'm carrying the roses that were given to me / And I'm thinking about paradise, wondering what it might be." Thematic follow-up to previous track. Powerful crescendo throughout relieves the track of three-chord monotony.
*High Water (for Charlie Patton) [Live, 2003]. COMPARE TO ALBUM VERSION. His voice takes a verse to really get in the swing of the song and to croak out the lines in full, but once his voice is there, the rest of the song gels simultaneously. Musically, this COOKS--his backing band turns in a very strong, heavy live performance here. The more outrageous lyrics really do work, and they form an effective contrast with the tame. Take lines like these: "I got a cravin' love for blazing speed, got a hopped up Mustang Ford / Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard"; "I'm getting' up in the morning - I believe I'll dust my broom." Lot of fun. Ends disc one strongly.
*Mississippi [Unreleased 2, Time Out]. Very different take from the other--lower, with bluesy slide-guitar touches. Again, his voice was noticeably fitter in '97 even if his overall tone has remained the same throughout the period represented. Very nice.
*32-20 Blues [Unreleased, World Gone Wrong]. Awesome acoustic blues, Robert Johnson cover.
Series of Dreams [Unreleased, Oh Mercy]. Slower than take from Greatest Hits 3 / Bootleg 1-3. Again, whole verses are added, lines are exchanged, etc. Weird (for Dylan) use of synthesizer in bass. Very simple, straightforward kind of acoustic/electric-hybrid, buzzing rock, a little on the jittery end. Wouldn't have sounded weird around some corner of London Calling. Not fantastic.
God Knows [Unreleased, Oh Mercy]. COMPARE WITH TAKE ON RED SKY. Fits quite well after previous track. Wouldn't sound weird on a Stones album, same kind of rockin' murkiness.
Can't Escape from You [Unreleased, 2005]. "?The dead bells are ringing / My train is overdue"; "It never should have ended / I should have kissed you in the rain"; "I can't help looking at you / You made love with God knows who." A few interesting lyrics, otherwise standard old-timey ballad.
Dignity [Unreleased, Oh Mercy]. This take has a Truckin'-like triplet riff running through it. "Blind man breakin' out of a trance / Puts both of his hands in the bucket of chance / Hoping to find one circumstance of dignity." Rich in characters and allusion. (?Check out Don Juan verse again.)
*Ring Them Bells [Live, 1993]. Nice incorporation of both acoustic and pedal steel guitar in the instrumental mix. Builds to HIGH emotional climax on bridge.
"Oh the lines are long
And the fighting is strong
And they're breaking down the distance
Between right and wrong."
Cocaine Blues [Live, 1997]. Different song from the one Johnny Cash sings. Again, nice pedal steel and acoustic juxtaposition. Dylan's frenzied vocal performance is appropriately attuned to the underlying sickness and desperation of the song--the raggedness of it really works here, as to the rustic harmonies of the backup singer.
*Ain't Talkin' [Alt., Modern Times]. Not too fundamentally different from the album take, but by the same token, equally impressive. Interesting hint of fingerpicking banjo faint in the mix. As anyone who has heard Modern Times knows, this song is a dark conclusion to that album. "If I catch my opponents ever sleepin' / I'll just slaughter them where they lie";
"Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Through the world mysterious and vague
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
Walking through the cities of the plague"
A handful of lyrics exchanged. Lyrically (perhaps because of its abridged length), not quite as powerful a statement as it was on Modern Times, but holds its own with the best of this album. A definite highlight.
The Girl on the Greenbriar Shore [Live, 1992]. Traditional Appalachian folk song, very much like something Garcia and Grisman would have tackled around the same time, or Dylan early in his career. Solo acoustic. Nice on the heels of more thickly arranged original material.
*Lonesome Day Blues [Live, 2002]. Wow, growling voice here. Occasionally funny blues. "Samantha Brown lived in my house for about four or five months / Don't know how it looked to other people - I never slept with her even once"; "Funny how the things you have the hardest time parting with are the things you need the least." The vocal affect here is similarly hilarious, like the lyrics. "My captain, he's decorated - he's well schooled and he's skilled / He's not sentimental - don't bother him at all how many of his pals have been killed." This is a minor gem of a song [COMPARE TO LOVE AND THEFT!]. This is the equal of the best of his recent songwriting, like Thunder on the Mountain, and probably of his entire career. Appropriately DYLANESQUE, too. Oh, and the blues are rollicking.
Miss the Mississippi [Unreleased, 1992]. Lovely, old-timey country ballad. Again, nice arrangement--the organ, mandolin, pedal steel. Bill Halley song, apparently. Pleasant.
The Lonesome River [with Ralph Stanley]. Wow, bona fide bluegrass arrangement.
Cross the Green Mountain [Gods and Generals Soundtrack]. Appropriate closing track, certainly. The lyrics aren't fantastic, probably much better in the context of a Civil War film. Somewhat cliche, actually. Part of it seems to be an elegy for Stonewall Jackson, actually. Some verses are bad ("Pride will vanish and glory will rot / But virtue lives and cannot be forgot"), some are better ("Let them say that I walked in fair nature's light / And that I was loyal to truth and to right"). Too many poetic inversions not to sound forced. Subpar Dylan work. I don't know why he closed the album with it.
* denotes a handful of songs I happened to especially enjoy