2008/10/21

Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs

[Author's Note: This review will be published in Friday's edition of the Wooster Voice. Notice I've reverted to that ridiculous newspaper convention of putting titles that should be italicized in quotes.]

Bob Dylan
"Tell Tale Signs"

In a career unrivaled in popular music, Bob Dylan's on yet another high. His 2006 album "Modern Times" was met with nearly universal acclaim, entering the U.S. charts at #1 and subsequently named album of the year by "Rolling Stone." Earlier this year, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize special citation for the arts.

Riding on this wave is "Tell Tale Signs," the eighth volume of his ongoing "Bootleg Series" and his first collection of unreleased material in two years. "Tell Tale Signs" encompasses outtakes, alternate takes, live tracks, and other rarities from 1989-2006, a period of renewed creativity that yielded not only "Modern Times" but the equally celebrated "Time Out of Mind" (1997) and "Love and Theft" (2001).

Much of this material is hardly new at all—in fact, most of it’s been sitting in the vault for over ten years. Nonetheless, it's very much representative of recent Dylan. His voice is grizzled and craggy. His lyrics spotlight the concerns of aging and mortality even as they reflect a weary, experienced kind of contentment and an often biting sense of humor. His music draws not only on timeless Americana—folk, country, and the blues—but pop balladry circa the early 1900's.

What these two discs reveal is the volume of material that was recorded for, and left off, many of Dylan's recent albums. "Tell Tale Signs" includes five unique songs axed from "Time Out of Mind," as well as four from 1989's "Oh Mercy."

It is a wonder that some of these songs have never seen the light of day until now. "Dreamin' of You," recorded for "Time Out of Mind," is among the highlights of the collection, boasting a dark ambience befitting its desperation in lyrics like, "Even if the flesh falls off my face / It won't matter as long as you're there." From the same sessions, “Marchin’ to the City” is first-rate blues sketched out in piano and organ and tinged with subtle gospel shadings.

Equally regrettable was that the brilliantly silly "Huck's Tune" ("All the merry little elves / Can go hang themselves / My faith is as cold as can be") was consigned to last year's box-office flop "Lucky You." And perhaps the strongest song featured here—the lovely "Mississippi" appears as two distinct outtakes from "Time Out of Mind"—was vetoed by producer Daniel Lanois before being given to Sheryl Crow and rerecorded by Dylan for "Love and Theft."

However, the general sense is that the cuts were judicious—most of the best material here has already surfaced in some form. "Red River Shore," which appears for the first time here, is formally perfect but bland and unremarkable; it is redeemed only by Jesus (literally), whose healing powers are referenced in the witty closing verse ("I don't know what kind of language he used / Or if they do that kind of thing anymore"). Even more disappointing is "Cross the Green Mountain," the album's closing track, previously released on the soundtrack for civil war film "Gods and Generals." The song collapses under romantic clich├ęs and forced rhymes, as in, "Pride will vanish and glory will rot / But virtues lives and cannot be forgot."

The live tracks are often phenomenal, however, and showcase Dylan’s range as a performer. The version of “High Water” that closes the first disc gels almost instantly, boosted by his ever-exemplary touring band and an almost manic vocal performance which gives extra punch to Dylanisms like, “I’m gettin’ up in the morning—I believe I’ll dust my broom.” In stark contrast, he revives the traditional Appalachian “Girl on the Greenbriar Shore” in a solo acoustic performance recalling his earliest days as a Greenwich Village folkie.

“Tell Tale Signs” contains more than a few pleasant surprises for any Dylan fan. While it isn’t as strong as any of his recent studio albums or the previous volume of the “Bootleg Series,” which similarly reexamined his career through 1966, “Tell Tale Signs” is rich, diverse, and rewarding, ample reminder that Dylan, at 67, just “keeps on keepin’ on.”

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