Beautiful, brave and beguiling.
Chris Jones 2008
Tell Tale Signs is both a joy and a source of frustration.
Is this the stuff fans really want to hear? It seems amazing that we've got to volume eight from Robert Zimmerman's bulging vault of out-takes and live cuts and STILL haven't seen hide nor hair of legendary material such as the full Basement Tapes, or his original Blood On The Tracks: but, just as we've had to hold our tongue with another prolific major recording artist of the last century, Neil Young, let's not be churlish. This addition to the Dylan canon (available in either one, two or an extortionate three disc deluxe edition) is every inch the equal of its predecessors.
For Dylanologists the period covered here (1989-2006) can split ranks. However most consider it the period of rebirth for the man. Following a drifting, contradictory 80s filled with endless touring and spiritual and artistic crises, Bob began fighting back by recording Oh Mercy in Louisiana with Daniel Lanois. It's not entirely insignificant that in his wonderful book, Chronicles, he focussed on these sessions as it's where his return to making true art began.
The story of how Dylan admitted to loving rappers when talking to Lanois ("They were beating drums, tearing it up, hurling horses over cliffs") makes perfect sense, especially when you hear his alternative longer version of Everything Is Broken. The poet had returned.
Highlights are so many it's dizzying, but of real note is a version of Dignity: a wonderful, warm, intimate account of human suffering that belies any wrong-headed notion that Bob stopped caring after 1976.
Sleeve notes by Larry 'Ratso' Sloman err on the side of selling these songs as revelatory. However they cannot be described as 'better' or 'definitive'. There is no definitive Dylan - his whole life is a work in progress. And there's nothing truly startling, other than maybe the realisation that the cuts that made it onto Time Out Of Mind (his thrice-Grammy-winning album with Lanois) were maybe deliberately chosen so that their rough vocals matched the dour nature of the subject matter. On the sessions' offcuts his voice is spry and surprisingly limber.
If you love the trilogy of Time Out Of Mind, Love And Theft and Modern Times you're going to adore this. It lays bare the process that led Dylan to not only revisit the work that got him fired up in the first place but remake them in his own image: the Carter Family (Tell Ol' Bill) amongst many others.
As a companion to his best work from the period this is essential. It even stands as a fine album on its own - the work of a man obviously in love with his muse once more, and totally unafraid of fessin' up to his roots. Beautiful, brave and beguiling.