Saturday, October 18, 2008

Tell Tale Signs

I must relinquish my tenacious hold on Son Lux's At War With Walls and Mazes and simply admit that Bob Dylan's Tell Tale Signs, the eighth installment of Columbia's Bootleg Series, will be the best album of 2008. These songs are, by the way, the leftovers, the ones that Bob and/or his producers didn't deem fit for inclusion on the official releases of the past twenty years. Which again simply proves that there is the rest of the musical world, and there is Bob Dylan. I'll put it this way. With Vol. 8 there are now 8 multiple CD sets of Dylan leftovers. And if Dylan had only released those leftovers, he would be the greatest and most important songwriter of the past 50 years. Sorry, Ryan Lott. I hope you don't mind giving up the top spot to someone of that magnitude.

As most people here know, I'm not a fan of Daniel Lanois' heavy-handed production, so it is a great, great pleasure to hear some of the more familiar songs freed from their sonic sarcophagus. Unwind the gauzy sheets from that mummy and you find that he can still rock and carry a tune. The live tracks bite and sting. The alternate versions of the previously released songs are, almost without exception, more raw, more urgent, and simply better than the versions that appeared on Oh, Mercy, Time Out of Mind, and Modern Times. And the previously unreleased songs? There are two songs here -- "Red River Shore" and "'Cross the Green Mountain" -- that are as nuanced and deeply layered and insightful as anything Bob Dylan has ever written. Awash in rueful regret, full of tender expressions of love, they reflect the hard, beautiful stuff of real life, and they are astonishing. And Bob Dylan left these songs on the cutting room floor.

The man simply has no peers. He plays in a world that celebrates youth, and he can still school the kids at the ripe old age of 67. Long may he howl.


Anonymous said...

Our local music critic in the Muncie Star Press said something to the effect that for Dylan, these are outtakes; for anyone else, they're greatest hits.

Mike G said...

I haven't heard the newest Dylan yet (hope to get it soon), and I agree that the Bootleg series is great. However, don't forget that Vols. 4-6 are concerts with many of his greatest songs, and Vol. 7 is the soundtrack to the documentary No Direction Home, which is predominantly original album versions along with live versions of other "greatest hits."

Sure, most of the hits are different versions (sometimes, several different versions), but that's different from getting actual songs left off the original albums. I guess I'm trying to point out that the Bootleg series isn't just "leftover" songs; half of those sets are just alternate performances, which doesn't add up to the same thing.

That's not to say that I don't think Dylan is the most important songwriter of the last 50 years; he is arguably that, and maybe more. Just look at the box set Biography. When it came out in the mid-1980s it astonished me with how many great songs were on it, not to mention those that were left out. And part of that experience was hearing the outtakes or songs that hadn't made it to an album.


Andy Whitman said...

No argument from me, Mike. You're right that several volumes of the Bootleg series are concert recordings, and don't really qualify as outtakes/previously unreleased material. I'm sure I got carried away in my initial enthusiasm.

But yes, I'm very enthusiastic about Vol. 8. To be clear, only Vols. 1 - 3, and Vol. 8 really qualify as consisting primarily of previously unreleased outtakes. Vol. 8 has a number of alternate studio and live versions of previously released tracks as well. But the alternate versions are, for all intents and purposes, brand new songs because they are radically reinvented.

The man is incapable of repeating himself. Sometimes, as in the occasionally dicey concerts I've seen, that's problematic because it really would be nice to recognize, say, "Like a Rolling Stone" as that song you played a million times in your youth. But the approach pays off richly on the new set. And the previously unreleased material, particularly "Red River Shore" and "'Cross the Green Mountain," is just staggeringly great. The vast, vast majority of songwriters would kill to come up with a batch of songs this good throughout their entire careers. For Dylan, these are throwaways.

Anonymous said...

This might be a result of my love of jazz, but I really appreciate hearing alternative versions of familiar songs. As far as the non-jazz world, I've only heard Dylan and Willie Nelson consistently do this. I'm sure (and hope) there are others.