Friday, October 10, 2008

"Tell Tale Signs" - Bob Dylan's Accidental Masterpiece

As much as I love Bruce Springsteen, when it comes right down to it you can’t really place him in the same category as Bob Dylan. As a rock artist, Dylan’s peers are not Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young – they are Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Otis Redding; perhaps a small handful of others.

Dylan’s Bootleg Series has been an absolute treasure, and solidified his claim as the pre-eminent musical artist of the rock era. Speaking as a huge fan who falls short of obsession (there are those who own entire CDs of Dylan performances of a single song across an entire tour), it is amazing on the Bootleg Series albums to discover the degree to which Dylan allows his songs to cook in the laboratory before he releases them to the public. And it’s not as if the alternate versions are lesser than those which showed up on the final product – in most instances, they might as well be different songs altogether. A prime example is “Someday Baby,” originally from Modern Times. The version on Tell Tale Signs (Volume 8 of The Bootleg Series, released this week) is recognizable only by the lyrics, and from Dylan’s phrasing of some of the lines. This version is just as good as the original, and makes one curious about Dylan’s decision-making process as he is making an album.

Tell Tale Signs covers the period of Dylan’s great renaissance, which began in 1989 and continues to this day. I may have told the story before, but it is one of such hope and triumph that I never tire of telling it – never tire of thinking about it. Because when you think about this story, you can’t help but be hopeful about the world at large – even when it seems, as it does now, that the world is about to spin off its axis. For the sake of brevity, I’ll assume that everyone is familiar with the first chapters of Dylan’s story – the part that made him famous. The real story begins after the release of Blood on the Tracks, which for many years looked as if it would be the last great album Dylan released. Because after that, for whatever reason, Dylan’s muse deserted him, to a large degree. Sure, there were great songs, and even some good albums. But for a period of nearly two decades, there was not a single original work that should have caused one to declare, though many did, that “Dylan was back.”

The fog began to clear with the release of Oh Mercy in 1989 and Under the Red Sky in 1990, but while those works were clearly the best Dylan albums in years, neither one even approached the greatness that had flowed from Dylan’s well so consistently for so long in the 1960s. The real turning point came with two albums released in 1992 and 1993 which consisted solely of Dylan on acoustic guitar and harmonica, playing nothing but old English and American folk songs. Both albums - Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong - were brilliant, and in retrospect can be viewed almost as something akin to primal scream therapy. At around the same time, Dylan toured incessantly with a band that would, on a nightly basis, re-imagine his best known songs for a new audience who cared more about being challenged than it did about hearing a note-for-note rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone.” It was now clear that Dylan could still deliver the goods, but one still wondered whether “electric Dylan” would ever make a comeback on record.

Growing from those successes, in 1997, was Time Out of Mind. It was, as Greil Marcus called it, “a bleak and blasted work.” But from the first notes of “Love Sick,” you knew that it was a vital piece of work – an important piece of work. The songs on the album could just as easily have been recorded 30 years earlier, but they also fit perfectly into the late 1990s – which is to say they were timeless. And the way in which they were recorded and produced by Daniel Lanois created an atmosphere of danger – you could picture the musicians cloistered tightly in a circle, performing the songs in a dark alley somewhere, listening to the footsteps around them and wondering whether to fear for their life, or just keep on playing. All of which is to say that these songs felt, as had no other original Dylan songs for quite some time, as if there was something at stake in the outcome. Songs like “Cold Irons Bound” are downright scary:

I'm beginning to hear voices and there's no one around
Well, I'm all used up and the fields have turned brown
I went to church on Sunday and she passed by
My love for her is taking such a long time to die
I'm waist deep, waist deep in the mist
It's almost like, almost like I don't exist
I'm twenty miles out of town, in cold irons bound

It was, and is, a brilliant album. It is my favorite Dylan album, and to my ears the best album of the past 25 years (and maybe further back than that).

To date, the story has yet to end; Dylan has followed up that masterpiece with two others, Love and Theft and Modern Times. And it is from this incredible period that the songs on Tell Tale Signs are drawn. There is not a bad track among the 27 songs on the album, which break down into three categories – alternative versions of songs released on one of the aforementioned albums, unreleased tracks from the period, and miscellaneous recordings which turned up on soundtrack albums, tribute albums, and the like. Of the alternative versions, the two versions of “Mississippi” stand out, as do “Can’t Wait,” Ain’t Talkin’”, and “Most of the Time.” The live version of “High Water (For Charley Patton)” takes an already brilliant song and adds a dimension to it that was hardly imaginable in the original – which is what makes Dylan concerts such an exciting prospect in this day and age. But the album’s bona fide classics are two unreleased tracks from the Time Out of Mind sessions – “Red River Shore” and Marchin’ To the City.” These are wonderful songs – and one should be thankful for the bootleg concept so that they can now see the light of day.

There’s not a doubt in my mind that this will be the best music released in 2008. For that, we should feel no shame – just a desire to celebrate the ongoing musical life of a great American artist.


Mona said...

I love this album. What I like about Dylan is that he (like Van) is about the music and not the fame. He's not afraid to try different things that interest him. That's probably why we can feel so much of his soul in his music. My favorite on this album is "Marchin' to the City". I like when Dylan gets a little gospel on us.

Mona said...

By the way, don't you think our country's new anthem right now should be "everything is broken"? hahahaha. The last few lines are pretty appropro.

Jeff said...

^ I was thinking the same thing about "Workingman Blues #2," listening to it on the way home from work yesterday:

There's an evenin' haze settlin' over the town/Starlight by the edge of the creek/The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down/Money's gettin' shallow and weak/The place I love best is a sweet memory/It's a new path that we trod/They say low wages are a reality/If we want to compete abroad


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.

Jan Sevastakis said...

"Tell Tale Signs",sure don't sound like no accident to me.For crying out loud give Dylan a little more credit than that!

Jeff said...

"Accidental" only in that it is a collection of songs that were not originally intended to be released as an album. It wasn't intended to be a criticism. And since I called it the best music of 2008, I'm not sure how much more credit I can give!

Jan Sevastakis said...

That's my point Bob's been around long enough to know how to shuffle the cards-----and play a winning hand.What he did was ingenious.But then he's Bob Dylan,how could a person expect anything less.

Anonymous said...

Have you never heard Street Legal or Slow Train or Shot of Love or Infidels? This idea that he didn't do anything great between Blood on the Tracks and the late 80s is really kind of ridiculous.

Jeff said...

Yeah, I've heard of them. I own them. And they don't come close to standing up to his best work. And "Slow Train Coming" is an abomination. Just one man's opinion. One that I think others share, frankly.

Chano said...

In response to: Have you never heard Street Legal or Slow Train or Shot of Love or Infidels? This idea that he didn't do anything great between Blood on the Tracks and the late 80s is really kind of ridiculous.

I fully agree. There are songs in the albums that you mentioned that hit deep, as deep or deeper than anything he's ever done. There are tracks on the "gospel trilogy" that simply feed the soul in ways that are impossible for his other works. Infidels is brilliant. Can you imagine if he had left on Blind Willie McTell and Lord Protect My Child--or even Foot of Pride on it? An utter masterpiece, especially if you take maybe 1 or 2 tracks out as well--although I do lament the production value of much of it. There's some great music and some deep stuff too on Street Legal--the mystery of Señor and Changing of the Guards. And I assume you were not not counting Desire, the follow up to BOTT as falling in this so called fallow period? The world will sometimes love you, sometimes hate you, sometimes not get you, sometimes be indifferent--but by no means is that judgement necessarily reflective of the quality of the work. This is not to pass judgement on of these works as albums--because they could have been better as such. I'm only defending the incredible strength of many of the tracks from that period. Based on the strength of his best work from that period, one would still have to place him as one of our most, if not our most, brilliant composers and songwriters.

Now back to the present: I have to say that what astounds me about Tell Tales Signs is Dylan's singing. I've never been more impressed with the way he uses his voice and with the inventiveness of his phrasing, how nuanced it can be, his ability to capture a mood--what a master. Have not even finished listening yet. I was floored by the live version of High Water.

matthew said...

I think street legal is the greatest album ever made by anybody has all the garishness and crap musical values of the period with these killer incisive lyrics that cut through to the heart ...anybody else without Bob's cv and this would be an accepted masterpiece ....infidels also has some great songs