Music Review: Dylan’s Tell Tale Signs

10 mins read

Decisions, decisions. It’s the evening of October 7th. I can watch the Presidential debates on TV or I can listen to Bob Dylan’s latest “Official Bootleg” on four chunks of newly pressed vinyl. I am acquainted with the Buddhist aphorism, “when faced with two paths, choose the more difficult.” My response? When faced with an uncomfortable aphorism, ignore it. Yeah, I’m listening to Dylan.

The collection is Tell Tale Signs, the eighth in the “Official Bootleg” series. It consists pretty much exclusively of out-takes and live performances from the most recent albums Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times. These works have been critical and commercial successes, with the last three regarded as a trilogy chronicling Dylan’s return from the abysmal 80’s. The inclusion of formative material from Oh Mercy is intriguing, if only for the fact that it’s a work separated from the later three by almost a decade. Tell Tale Signs is basically a reasonably priced two-disc set, or you can go retro-expensive and get the limited edition four-lp vinyl set. An exclusive third disc for the truly fixated is linked to the purchase of a hardcover collection of cover art for singles released in the UK and Europe. The unseemly aspect of this is that there are some great songs on disc three, but you have to buy the book and the fee is huge, anywhere from 110-160 dollars. And how many of us care about 45 rpm artwork?

In the mid-late 80’s, Dylan had hit a creative dry patch, with messy live performances and releasing nothing well-regarded until 1989 and the Daniel Lanois-produced Oh Mercy. Entering the 90′ s Dylan stalled again, releasing a couple albums (World Gone Wrong 1992, and Good As I Been To You 1993) that were critically regarded as perhaps contract filler. There were no new Dylan compositions, all songs were from traditional or roots sources. English and Scottish ballads and their Appalachian derivatives, old blues, a song from the Civil War, maybe a spiritual. No chart-busters, that’s for sure. But contract filler? Not really, not that either. More like a wandering back to the well, to the Lomax collection, to the music that Dylan found inspiring and affirming. Tell Tale Signs underscores what Bob Dylan was doing when he retooled traditional song structures to kick himself back into the process of song-writing. Toying with tempo, instrumentation and arrangement, the collected musicians slide the song up and down the timeline from the 1700’s to the present day and Bob hooks it up to words and poetry that can handle the shifts in era. The results are songs that can be truly regarded as “timeless.” Steven Foster could have written some of these songs (okay, I stretch the analogy, but not that much).

The first disc sets the scene with Mississippi, Dylan setting down most likely the first cut of a song originally recorded for Time Out of Mind, later noticeably changed and released on Love and Theft. It’s spare and honest, a characteristic that is the keystone of much of the songs presented on this collection. Whether it’s voice and simple guitar or a full band in live performance, the honesty is evident.

There are some wonderful songs here, old blues and ballads reworked (32-20 Blues, Duncan and Brady, and Girl on the Greenbriar Shore), and rips of new cloth sewn from old (Tell Ol’ Bill comes from a Carter Family song I Never Loved But One). And then there are the alternate takes of released songs, as Dylan and the other musicians moved into different tempos, moods. These can be at least intriguing, often instructional and sometimes you’ll wonder why it wasn’t picked as the better take. Why one song was orphaned and another adopted.

Also in the collection are songs in my favorite format (surprise). Live Performance! And no there’s not enough, only five songs in the proletarian edition, there are three more in the special seats. But the ones that are included clearly prove my point. High Water (for Charlie Patton) and the amazing Lonesome Day Blues show the brilliance of a band that is connected, creative and making the song new every night. For me, it’s Dylan at his best. Even the spiritual Ring Them Bells is richer and more real when the band and Dylan are doing it realtime. Innovative interplay, musical spaces opened for serendipity. It’s live, it’s great. Which begs the question, why isn’t there an “Official Bootleg” release of one of his many current live concerts? Certainly the unofficial bootlegs are ubiquitous on the internet, and (no matter how crudely recorded) are great evidence of the rewards of seeing Dylan live.

Although I may be considered a Dylan acolyte, I’m also somewhat of an apostate. Dylan can write a bad song (really!) and can also spoil a good one by horrific, airport-bar arrangement or sugar-cute lyrics (placed in evidence Bye and Bye, Make You Feel My Love, Moonlight from previous albums). Of the recent holy trilogy, I could edit the works down to perhaps two really great albums. The same can be said of Tell Tale Signs. There are songs that to me are “skip-able.” There are two versions of an unreleased Marchin’ To The City, I couldn’t get through even the first version without toggling to the next track. This collection’s version of Someday Baby, to me, is maybe yesterday, tomorrow, not today. One of the two versions of Most of the Time (an achingly sad song) is set in such a jaunty beat that it becomes parody, yet the other one will kill you. The early sketch of Aint Talkin is interesting for the different lyric content, but it doesn’t match the final take as far as sweep and vision.

But against that critical grain are drop-dead honest songs. Red River Shore is one of the great unrequited love songs, and the live stuff alone is worth a chunk of change. New songs such as Dreamin of You and Can’t Escape from You are so well done you have to wonder how they missed being released in the first round. But is it worth your ever more hard-earned dollar? If you’ve liked the past three albums, you’ll be quite satisfied with this as well. Dylan again situates somewhere between the cold eye of Diogenes and the apocalyptic rants of an Old Testament prophet. Society is brutally unfair and constantly teetering on collapse and people aren’t much better. It’s Dylan at the top of his writing and his cracked blues-ravaged voice now matches the subject matter. This collection shows Dylan in creative flux, when simple songs become not that simple. Twists of phrase, tone, emphasis, the creative process.

It’s scary to even think of this but Tell Tale Signs provides even deeper evidence that Dylan is actually a late-bloomer. His early years were marked with effusive, Beat-conscious rivers of words, flooding your mind. Now he frames words like doors that swing, back to the past or open to the future. Why use five words when one will do? Then “in the folk tradition” take those words and place them on skeletons of ancient song structures. Let the band cut loose and you’ve got some excellent material. What is stunning about Tell Tale Signs is that these are songs that didn’t make Dylan’s first cut and they are really good. With very thorough and informative recording data, a few crazy photographs, and deep liner notes, this latest “Official Bootleg” should satisfy both the Dylan zealot and the newbie. The two-CD set is a pretty good value, and maybe you can find someone who’ll loan you that third CD. Just to give it a listen, that’s all. Right.

And the Presidential debates. Did any of you watching change your vote?

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1 Comment

  1. YOu made the right decision, Ernie.

    This is a great collection of songs. Mysterious, elusive, enigmatic…just like the man himself. Songs with color and character.

    And if you love the characters Bob’s created here, you should take look at my new novel, BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, a murder mystery set in the rock world in which all the suspects are characters in Bob’s songs.

    An entire book built around Bob’s creations? That’s just the kind of depth this man has. Intrigued? You can get a copy on or go “behind the tracks” at to learn more about the book.

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