Bob Dylan’s Tell Tale Signs, the eighth installment of the legendary songwriter’s ever-popular Bootleg Series, was released last week. The mass appeal of these official bootleg volumes has become evident over the years. They offer us a glimpse, however short-lived and contrived, into the inner world of Dylan both in studio and on stage during every period of his nearly fifty-year career, a domain once reserved for Zimmy junkies who hoarded and circulated Dylan’s recordings in the same confidence and secrecy as bootleggers running liquor during Prohibition. And that bootleg magic survives somehow in these official releases—that sense of possessing and protecting something of infinite significance, something we have an intrinsic right to. Millions are listening to the same tracks as we are, but we still feel privy to, in the know, and certain that we’ll be the ones to unearth the next great song in the Dylan canon and save it from being lost to time or the cutting room floor of the recording studio.
Tell Tale Signs focuses on the latter period of Dylan’s career (1989-2006), two decades that have seen Dylan reinvent himself and once again harness his creative powers to produce some of the most compelling and rewarding albums of his career. This two-disc release features twenty-seven tracks of alternate versions, unreleased recordings, live performances, and songs recorded for films. (A Deluxe Edition offers a third disc of recordings and expanded books of photos and artwork, but you’ll have to shell out an additional $100 for these extras. This review only pertains to the standard two-disc release.)
Alternate versions of songs we know are always interesting. Listeners get a chance to experience what could have been, and some argue it’s an opportunity to gain access to the studio and the artist’s creative process—to witness the metamorphosis of a song. The alternate versions on Tell Tale Signs, however, sound more like songs in their own right than stepping stones towards other versions. For example, this volume contains two versions of Dylan’s gorgeous “Mississippi”, each rendering a drastically different tale. The barebones version featuring only Daniel Lanois on guitar attaches a sense of urgency to lines like “sky full of fire/pain pourin’ down,” while the cut with a quicker tempo and added ornamentation gives the song a vibe bordering on indolent. Alternate versions of “Ain’t Talkin’” and “Can’t Wait” find life of their own here, and we are able to see lyrical transformations or, in some cases, complete overhauls. But there are other alternative takes that offer little to take in. Two versions of “Dignity” are included, and neither can hold a candle to previously released versions. “Most of the Time,” the show-stealer from Oh Mercy, loses its “If You See Her, Say Hello” quality with tempo change and a hurried vocal delivery. When Dylan sings, “Don’t even remember what her lips felt like on mine/Most of the time,” I believe him, but I don’t think I’m supposed to.
Dylan has more songs than he’ll ever need, and it’s easy to imagine perfectly wonderful songs laying around his home unused and forgotten about. Tell Tale Signs has three of these leftover recordings that are so good it makes you wonder how even Bob Dylan could keep them off of an album. “Red River Shore”, a mystical tale of unrequited love, begins bare and soulful and builds with organs, percussion, and accordion to relate the regret, uncertainty, and dissolution of Dylan’s protagonist. This track is the gem, the “Blind Willie McTell” of this volume, and it seems criminal that this song somehow was left off of Time Out of Mind. Listeners will recognize lyrics from “Standing in the Doorway” and other songs when listening to “Dreamin’ of You”, but this recording, done in one cut, adds muscle that drives the song, and the lyrics of heartbreak are transformed to tell the story of a man teetering on the edge, ready to lose his sanity and control at any given moment. The vocal performance is what stands out on “Can’t Escape from You”, a beautiful rambler that comes as natural to Dylan as breathing but somehow didn’t end up on 2006’s Modern Times. Dylan sounds deeper and gruffer than usual—a hint of Tom Waits—and it brings a weight of truth and feeling to even the simplest of utterances.
Dylan has made a habit throughout his career of recording some of his very best songs for film. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” for Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and “Things Have Changed” for Wonder Boys are two well-known examples. On Tell Tale Signs, Dylan once again demonstrates that the powerful imagery of his songs is not only a suitable match for film but also capable of transcending the silver screen all together, making us ask if Bob Dylan wrote a song for a movie or if a movie was filmed for Bob Dylan’s song? “Huck’s Tune”, written for Lucky You, is a romantic song that highlights Dylan’s ability to embody the meaning of a song in his voice. “When I kiss your lips/The honey drips/I’m gonna have to put you down for a while,” sings Dylan, and it’s as if Huck himself—a character in the film—is singing and not Dylan at all. The same quality exists on “‘Cross the Green Mountain”, a song written for the Civil War movie Gods and Generals. Once again, it’s not Bob Dylan telling the story but a first-hand witness to a “monstrous dream.” “I look into the eyes of my merciful friend/And ask myself, Is this the end?/Memories linger sad but sweet/And I think of the souls in Heaven who we’ll meet.” Dylan’s ability to become part of his songs is truly unique, and even more mind blowing is his ability to tap into the emotions that cause our hearts to tighten within our chests using only his voice and words set to simple arrangements.
If you’ve been too busy over the last twenty years to catch Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour, Tell Tale Signs’ live tracks will give you an idea of what you’ve been missing. “High Water (For Charlie Patton)” is a concert staple and features a barking/rapping Dylan testifying over dueling guitars. “Lonesome Day Blues” is a suped up, standard blues structure that pounds along and begs to be danced to. A great Volume 9 of the Bootleg Series would be a collection of live performances from the last few years of Dylan concerts. Dylan and his band were at the peak of their powers during this stretch, and it seems a shame that the general public wouldn’t have proper recordings of a headbanging version of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” or the bittersweet “Boots of Spanish Leather” that has grown more sublime with age.
All Dylan fans believe in the myth of the Dylan Vault—the idea that Columbia Records has a warehouse somewhere full of nothing but rare and unreleased gems that never made it onto Dylan’s official albums. Who knows how many more songs like “Red River Shore” are sitting on a shelf somewhere waiting to see daylight. Is the Dylan Vault out there somewhere? Probably not. But I have to believe there are a handful of great tracks that didn’t make this collection, ones that would have delighted listeners more than ho-hum versions of “Dignity”, “Someday Baby”, and “Series of Dreams.” There’s a few gorgeous finds on this album (instant Dylan classics), but all in all, you could dump six or seven of these tracks, and they’d never be missed. It’s not that there is anything wrong with these songs. After all, Dylan’s throwaways are better than most songwriter’s masterpieces. It’s just that fans have come to expect a lot from these bootleg releases, and given Dylan’s evolving live performances and resurgent studio output throughout this collection’s time period, I have to believe there were more choice tracks to choose from than represented here.
The best of Dylan’s Bootleg Series have been the live shows, and I hope that’s where Volume 9 takes us. The man has made a series of great albums beginning in the late nineties, but Dylan fans will agree, seeing Bob in concert is “seeing the real him at last.” A bootleg volume of these performances would rival any recording he’s ever released.