Bob Dylan is well-known for his abandoned treasures — all those unreleased recordings from the past 40-plus years that have made his ongoing Bootleg Series such a mind-blowing trove. Dylan likely had little trouble leaving those moments behind, treasures or not; he’s always been wary of letting his past prejudice his here and now. This newest collection of rare recordings, though, is something apart: The alternate studio takes, undisclosed songs, movie tracks and live performances that make up the three discs of Tell Tale Signs (also available as a two-disc package) depict Dylan’s development from 1989 to 2006 — which is to say they’re closer to Dylan’s here and now than any earlier volumes. Also, Tell Tale Signs is less an anthology than an album in its own right. It seems designed to tell a story that sharpens and expands the vista of mortal and cultural disintegration that has been the chief theme of Dylan’s 1997’s Time Out of Mind, 2001’s Love and Theft and 2006’s Modern Times — perhaps the most daring music he’s ever made. Tell Tale Signs makes plain that Dylan knows the caprices of the world he lives in, now more than ever.
Just as important, this collection bears witness to Dylan’s reclamation of voice and perspective. He had been a singular visionary who upended rock & roll by recasting it as a force that could question society’s values and politics, but he relinquished that calling as the society grew more dangerous. By the end of the Eighties, he had undergone so many transformations, made so many half-here and half-there albums, that he seemed to be casting about for a purpose. What did he want to say about the times around him? Did he have a vision anymore or just a career? The singer drew a new bead on these concerns with 1989’s Oh Mercy, produced by Daniel Lanois. Dylan has said he was never fully satisfied with the album, but given that Tell Tale Signs features 10 tracks from Oh Mercy‘s sessions, it’s clear its tunes mattered to him.
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It’s also clear that Dylan sometimes had better production instincts than Lanois. The latter’s interpretation of “Most of the Time” — the broken meditation of a lovesick man — played like immaculate architecture; everything about it, including vocals and emotions, was put in a measured place, meant to sustain atmosphere more than expression. By contrast, Dylan’s acoustic-guitar and harmonica rendering of the song has the drive and dynamics of the heart; it’s a living soliloquy that cuts to the quick. Similarly, his reading of “Ring Them Bells” features just his voice and piano, and its longing is palpable. On Oh Mercy, the song felt like a blessing, full of compassion and beauty; here, it works as a tortured prayer, already turning from hope, and it makes one wonder why Dylan ever allowed Lanois’ mannered ambience to subsume the song. Yet as promising as Oh Mercy‘s songs seemed at the time, they were also still trying to reason with the world, to offer the possibility of deliverance. They couldn’t begin to hint at the gravity of what was to come.
By the time of 1997’s Lanois-helmed Time Out of Mind, Dylan’s view was well past optimistic. In the seven years since he last recorded an original album, he concentrated mainly on rekindling his musical spirit, playing live with a protean band that approached every performance as a chance for intense affinity. Something in Dylan had also turned hard-boiled: His worldview had sharpened, and he wasn’t reticent to talk about truths in unambiguous terms. This time, Lanois’ spooky milieu suited the artist’s world-weariness, working to evoke the sound of a midnight band playing a spectral juke joint, located somewhere near the end times. Tell Tale Signs testifies to Time Out of Mind‘s stature with 12 tracks — many of them versions of previously unreleased songs. Among the highlights are two takes of “Red River Shore,” a rhapsodic song, awash in a Tejano mellifluence, about an idealized love that never happened and how the singer inhabits its loss like a ghost.
The real find, though, is “Mississippi,” a song so central to Dylan’s later work that three takes of it exist here. Though the song would later figure on Love and Theft, Lanois told Dylan that he thought it was too “pedestrian” for Time Out of Mind. It’s probably just as well: “Mississippi” is too remarkable for any artful treatment. What seeps through its bones is foreclosed history, both American and personal: “Every step of the way, we walk the line/Your days are numbered, so are mine/Time is pilin’ up, we struggle and we scrape/We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape.” Moreover, all three takes serve as examples of the matchless singer Dylan remains, using inflection and phrasing to reveal different possibilities each time. He intones one version of “Mississippi” here as a remorseful lament, so soft-spoken that he’s leaning into your ear; the second as a late-night conspiracy, bone-tired and raspy; the third as the brave and heart-worn last stand, a witness to the costs and advantages of experience — all three of them encompass American loss.
But then, nearly all of Tell Tale Signs points to that state, and to something darker, deeper and irrefutable: There is no center that can hold in our time anymore, there is no certain shelter from the coming storms. Dylan works his way unflinchingly along the merciless highways and barren landscapes of “Marchin’ to the City” and “Tell Ol’ Bill,” past the floods of “High Water (For Charley Patton),” into the mean honesty of “Ain’t Talkin’ ” and “Lonesome Day Blues.” He is possessed of the love that damned him in “Red River Shore,” as well as the one he came to hate in “Someday Baby.” There are grace notes here, most of them drawn from the past, such as the portrayal of the brave Civil War soldiers dying together in “‘Cross the Green Mountain” and the maiden who follows her love into war in “Mary and the Soldier.” Others come simply from the immediacy of live performances like a 2003 delivery of “High Water” that Dylan’s band plays like a night raid, and a dreamlike adaptation of “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” from 2000.
Above all, there is an abiding love for America’s rich musical sources, invoked here in Robert Johnson’s deathly “32-20 Blues,” in Jimmie Rodgers’ elegant requiem “Miss the Mississippi” and in a high-lonesome duet with bluegrass vet Ralph Stanley on “The Lonesome River.” But love and truth, even vengeance, aren’t necessarily salvation — they’re simply, as Dylan says in “Huck’s Tune,” weapons “in this version of death called life.”
If Dylan’s songs were once protests looking for rectification — if his language was once phantasmagoric and tricky to decipher — well, that was wonderful, but things have changed. Tell Tale Signs sets a new milestone for this American artist. Dylan has always written about morally centerless times, but this collection comes from a different perspective — not something born of the existential moment but of the existential long view and the courage of dread. Jack Fate, Dylan’s character in Masked and Anonymous, intones what might work as the prÃ©cis for this album: “Seen from a fair garden, everything looks cheerful. Climb to a higher plateau, and you’ll see plunder and murder. Truth and beauty are in the eye of the beholder. I tried to stop figuring everything out a long time ago.” For a long time, we’ve asked Dylan to deliver us truths. Now that he has, we need to ask ourselves if we can live with them.