I’m having a swell time with Tell Tale Signs, the eighth installment in the Bob Dylan bootleg series. The songs are mostly outtakes from Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind, “Love and Theft” and Modern Times, with a sprinkling of live tracks and scattered soundtrack songs thrown in for good measure. As much as I like the song “Mississippi,” I’m not sure I need two more versions of it — three, if you count the version on the overpriced three-disc special edition — but I’m not going to fall yet again into the bootleg-snob mistake of complaining about how this series is mismanaged, how it leaves out crucial tracks from pivotal sessions, how it seems to be organized as collector bait rather than a documentary of one of American music’s most important artists. All of that is true, but even after the complaints have been noted, the facts remains that Tell Tale Signs is a tall mug of strong coffee after the kettle of lukewarm sleepy-time tea that was Modern Times. And, as I think I said earlier, I’m having a swell time listening to it.
Unlike the initial “Bootleg Series” release, this grab-bag volume has no lightning-bolt revelations, no songs like “Blind Willie McTell” that stop you dead in your tracks and leave you wondering what madman let them sit in the can unheard for so long. Tell Tale Signs is just an engaging, entertaining collection of songs from a musician whose leavings would serve as career foundations for lesser artists. If you don’t know Dylan, it’s not the place to start. But if you do know Dylan, and if you know the albums where these songs debuted, Tell Tale Signs is a showcase for Dylan as an artistic explorer, radically altering song structures, tempos and instrumentation as he looks for the soul of every song.
To me, the two biggest surprises so far have been “Tell Ol’ Bill,” a loping piano-driven tune from the soundtrack of an unheralded Charlize Theron film called North Country that just went onto my Netflix queue, and “Red River Shore,” which would have been a signal improvement over some of the more lead-footed numbers on Time Out of Mind. There are also samples from an unreleased album’s worth of songs Dylan recorded with David Bromberg during a period adrift in the early 1990s. Two of the Bromberg tracks are placed as bait on the special edition’s third disc, and they just don’t sound all that good to me. They don’t open up new vistas, they don’t overturn assumptions in the manner of the unreleased Basement Tapes recordings or the original version of Blood on the Tracks, they just certify the soundness of Dylan’s decision to keep them on the shelf.
I guess we’ll have to wait a while for a more complete Basement Tapes anthology, or a double-disc collection of the original Freewheelin’ song lineup, or an in-depth collection of the Blood on the Tracks sessions. But since I already have bootlegs of them (as do you, in all likelihood, if you’re interested enough in Dylan to have read this far) I take an indulgent view of collections like Tell Tale Signs. Perversity is Dylan’s middle name, but that’s part of the reason I still follow his music so avidly, three decades after I bought my first Dylan album, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.