Bob Dylan

And so with Tell Tale Signs, the latest and perhaps oddest volume in his ongoing Bootleg Series, the fourth (fifth? sixth?) golden era of Bob Dylan continues.

And what a volume it is. Unlike the rest of the series, it is neither a specific document of live performances nor a wide-ranging compilation like the first three volumes. Instead, the two discs present 27 tracks-alternate takes, early versions, demos and live cuts, plus several gems, either unreleased or from movie soundtracks-recorded between 1989 and 2006. Perhaps surprisingly, they more or less cohere as an album. Some decisions are tough to understand-why include live versions of standards like "Cocaine Blues" that are staples of Dylan's Never-Ending Tour?-but do not detract from the cohesion across both discs. And Tell Tale Signs offers healthy portions of both Storyteller Bob and Prophetic Voice Bob.

This album will delight the fanatic with its window into Dylan's creative process: witness the two versions of "Mississippi," one of the best tracks from 2001's Love and Theft. One, a demo with just producer Daniel Lanois on guitar and Dylan, is calmly beautiful; the other makes you glad he released the version he did. Elsewhere, listeners are treated to good songs that were unreleased ("Dreamin' of You") only to have their lyrics cannibalized for better ones ("Standing in the Doorway"). They also get a radically different, more original and arguably better arrangement of Modern Times' "Someday Baby" that makes lyrics like, "Well, I don't want to brag, but I'm gonna wring your neck" even more chilling.

A second strength of the release is that exposure to strong songs like "Ring Them Bells" and "Most of the Time" may reclaim Dylan's 1980s-1990s Lanois phase for our generation, which tends to ignore everything between 1976 and 1997.

But probably most important is the contribution of several unreleased songs. "'Cross the Green Mountain" is a wrenching Civil War epic from the Gods and Generals soundtrack that slides between allegory and vignette without ever losing focus. Even more sublime is "Red River Shore," another long, poignant ballad that distills heartbreak as so few artists-ever-could. It surely ranks among Dylan's best since the '70s, if not ever, and it alone makes Tell Tale Signs a must-have.

-David Graham


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