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Tell Tale Signs- The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Rare and Unreleased Recordings
The Bobfather’s more recent back pages yield a wealth of riches
Peter Murphy, 04 Nov 2008
We’ll never solve the mystery of why Bob Dylan has continually omitted some of his finest songs from his official album releases. Maybe he’s just an incurable existentialist who doesn’t care for preserving his work in terms of the Definitive Recorded Statement. Maybe he fancies himself the archetypal man in motion (“Ain’t talkin’/Just walkin’” as he puts it in on one of this album’s finest cuts, a throbbing out-take from Modern Times that sounds about two thousand years old), more concerned with life as lived in the transfigurative moment than petrified behind the stained glass of posterity.
Either ways, these Bootleg Series albums go a long way towards salving the frustration of never having heard ‘Series Of Dreams’ open Oh Mercy for the first time, or ‘Blind Willie McTell’ as the final dissolve on Infidels. Nowadays such concerns might be a moot point: you can sequence the records to your own digital specs if you choose, but that doesn’t change the fact that Dylan has consistently queered the notion of any new album being heralded the equal of his mid-60s triptych by removing the centrepiece song. Maybe it’s his perverse version of the intentional flaw in the prayer mat, or Cohen’s crack that lets the light in.
Not every selection on Tell Tale Signs is indispensable, but most are capable of silencing a crowded room (including a lovely slow blues take on ‘Mississippi’ and an inspired revisiting of that masterpiece of heartache and regret, ‘Most Of The Time’, delivered here in a more robust harp-harness-and-guitar mode).
In fact, at least half of the material on this double set can stand beside Dylan’s finest work. That much of it has been culled from his driest songwriting season (most of the 90s) as well as the millennial revivalist period, gives further cause for pause. The brace of albums (Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong) on which he went back to the sacred texts of pre-war gospel, blues and folk standards not only allowed him to re-find his voice, but also a new (or rather, ancient) vocabulary and subject matter. I’m not just talking about songs like ‘Red River Shore’ (a glorious out-take from the ,Time Out Of Mind sessions), or a chillingly committed rendition of Robert Johnson’s brutal ‘32-20 Blues’, or an unreleased beauty from December 2005 called ‘Can’t Escape From You’. There are also bristling, tough-skinned live versions of ‘High Water (Song For Charley Patton)’ and ‘Lonesome Day Blues’, plus a handful of superlative old-timey soundtrack tunes (‘Huck’s Tune’, ‘Tell Ol’ Bill’, the Civil War hymnal ‘Cross The Green Mountain’). And the difference between ‘Born In Time’, ‘Someday Baby’ and ‘Can’t Wait’ here and on their previously released incarnations is so marked, they could be different songs (the latter is a revelatory portrait of Dylan as a communicator of raw blues). Such apparently ad-hoc and on-the-spot recalibrations remind us that Dylan’s takes differ so radically from one to the next, it was but a wink in time that kept ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ from being released – or maybe even binned – as a woozy player-piano saloon waltz.