By Joel Francis
If there’s one detail to take away from “Tell Tale Signs,” the eighth installment in Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, its that “Mississippi” is as vital to his late-career renaissance as “Like A Rolling Stone” was to his electric rebirth.
The song opens both discs of the set (a third version appears on the bourgeoisie-only $130 “deluxe edition”). We first hear it as beautiful, slow folk ballad that features one of Dylan’s best vocal performances. Play this version for people who say Dylan can’t sing. It next appears as a more wirey, blues-influence tune that bears more of producer Daniel Lanois’ fingerprints.
Anyone who heard Sheryl Crow’s cover of “Mississippi” – she cut it for her “Globe Sessions” album before Dylan included it on “Love and Theft” – knows the song’s durability. It’s interesting to see Dylan add and shave layers before settling on a version suitable for release.
“Tell Tale Signs” is mainly a collection of shading and texture. With a few exceptions, hardcore Dylan fans will be familiar with all its 27 songs. What is surprising is the new contexts Dylan continually places them in.
“Most of the Time” is a gorgeous mood piece on “Oh Mercy,” but the alternate version replaces Lanois’ sheen with an acoustic guitar and places Dylan’s regret and pain at center stage. This motif is repeated across the set. Lanois produced two albums with Dylan and it’s telling that a majority of the cuts on this set draw from those sessions. Although their collaborations were critically acclaimed, Dylan and Lanois often struggled over differences in vision. These alternate versions are closer to the sound and feel that Dylan achieved alone on his ‘00s albums and could be seen as refutations of Lanois’ input.
There are only a handful of unheard songs, but what’s here is worth hearing. Lesser artists could build a career with the material Dylan discards. It’s unclear why the evocative “Dreaming of You” was left off “Time Out Of Mind,” but it is one of the brightest gems in this collection. There are two other “Time” discards – the gospel-flavored “Marching to the City” and the longing tale of lost love “Red River Shore.” “Can’t Escape You” is a sideways love song recorded in 2005, while the traditional “32-20 Blues” is an acoustic folk song from the “World Gone Wrong Sessions.”
The live cuts sprinkled throughout aren’t as illuminating, but still worthwhile. “High Water (For Charley Patton)” is angrier onstage, while an acoustic “Cocaine Blues” is a reminder of the amazing chemistry Dylan had with longtime touring guitarist Larry Campbell.
The inclusion of three previously released soundtrack songs is a bit puzzling. We’re given the superb “Cross the Green Mountain” from “Gods and Generals” and the haunting “Huck’s Tune” from “Lucky You,” but where is the Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed” from the “Wonder Boys” soundtrack? (A live version does appear on the $100 bonus disc.) Dylan’s swinging version of “Red Cadillac and Black Moustache” cut about the same time as “Love and Theft” for a Sun Records tribute would have been nice to have.
But these are minor quibbles. While this set doesn’t tell the faithful anything they don’t already know, that doesn’t mean they’re not worth hearing again in a different light.