The conventional narrative explaining Bob Dylan’s resurgence in the late 1980s after nearly a decade of creative drought and musical self-flagellation was supplied by Dylan himself in his sketchy anti-memoir Chronicles, Vol. 1. In the book, Dylan tells how in 1989 he stormed out of a rehearsal with touring mates the Grateful Dead feeling bewildered, disillusioned and bored with his own songs, only to end up under the thrall of an ancient black jazz singer performing in a dingy club. In that moment, apparently, Dylan had a vision of his next great artistic reinvention, this time as an endlessly touring folk-musical anachronism, channeling the spirits of Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith and Woody Guthrie with bibilical flair. Since that moment, we are led to believe, Dylan has been led by a preternatural sense of who he is and where he wants to go, the ultimate elder statesmen exuding uncanny confidence as well as artistic abundance, comfortably uncontroversial as he marches tunefully toward heaven’s door.
The problem with this version of history is that it provides an altogether too simple overview of Dylan’s past two decades, which have been as rife with stumbling blocks and soaring masterpieces as any in his storied career. The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs is the latest in a series of Dylan rarities collections, and it purports to cover the period beginning with 1989’s Daniel Lanois-produced return-to-form Oh, Mercy and ending with 2006’s Modern Times. It’s bewildering that so much of the album is taken up with outtakes from Oh, Mercy (there are seven!), considering that Dylan’s last rarities compilation, The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, also covered the period in which that album was released and even included a song that is reprised here, “Series of Dreams.” The alternate takes from the Oh, Mercy sessions that are included, such as “Dignity” and “Everything Is Broken,” may have the appealing, Lanois-patented moodiness, but as diabolical protest narratives they hardly seem of a piece with the songs that are included here from Dylan’s most recent, Americana-noir trilogy of Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times. The critically panned albums coming after Oh, Mercy and leading up to the vaunted trio, spotty efforts in which Dylan explored folk standards and began to rework his voice, are completely ignored save for one song. That reinforces the perception that we aren’t getting the full picture.
Indeed, the nasally voiced Jewfro Dylan of 1989 actually has little in common with the growling pencil-stached Dylan of 2006, but we are forced to shift sharply between the two on the fourth track of the album, when a piano demo of “Dignity” is followed by a meandering, steel-guitar-fed version of “Someday Baby,” an alternate cut from the Modern Times sessions. And again, from the existentialist salvos of 1989’s “God Knows” to the moping picturesque of 2005’s “Can’t Escape from You.” Nearly every other Dylan compilation I can think of has been ordered chronologically, so the fact that Tell Tale Signs isn’t must signify something. Randomizing things recalls the career-shuffler effect of a Dylan live set, but the constant changes in vocal technique and production styles is on the whole too disorienting. There could be a thematic thread here; if so, it is too opaque to do any good.
As soundtrack inclusions, I would have bullied not for the heartfelt if endless “Cross the Green Mountain” from the Gods and Generals soundtrack but the smoking cover of “Dixie” from Masked and Anonymous or its live versions of “Cold Irons Bound” and “Down in the Flood.” Which brings up another quibble: Dylan has lived his life for the past 20 years principally on the road, cranking out sets of barreling, squalling blues poetry in venues both cosmopolitan and Podunk, from Madison Square Garden to the Horseshoe Outdoor Stage in Elizabeth, Indiana. Tell Tale Signs includes only two live performances from the past 10 years, “High Water (For Charley Patton)” and “Lonesome Days,” and they make up the most startling, riveting material on the entire disc. On the latter, Dylan’s voice is especially stretched into a froggish lament, as if the instruments of his backing band are rigged to torture devices; more than anything, this must be the realization of his heroic ideal, pouring his soul into a prophetic, electrified howling.
Tell Tale Signs is not the second coming of Self-Portrait, but it’s a hell of a head-scratcher. While the album undoubtedly brings more than a few great moments, what is most disappointing is that instead of celebrating the past two decades of Dylan’s career, it calls the idea of such a celebration into question. But go back to the original albums, and those thoughts fade almost instantly. After the success of Bob Dylan: The Ultimate Collection a few years back, one has good reason to expect the fourth volume of Dylan’s greatest hits, which should cover the 1990s and 2000s, to be on its way soon. Even more desirable, though, is a collection of live performances from the Neverending Tour. That will renew appreciation in the side of Dylan that is fearlessly challenging, complex and controversial.