Two different portraits of Bob Dylan have emerged from the series of Dylan "bootleg" recordings released by Columbia Records over the last 17 years. One is a confident live performer for whom the stage is the ideal setting for raising his incendiary blend of folk, blues, and rock 'n' roll to a fever pitch. The other is the man behind the curtain, a studio-ensconced singer-songwriter who frequently struggles to capture on tape what he hears in his head.
It's the latter Dylan who emerges from the 27 tracks comprising the just-released Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8, Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006. Consisting mainly of trial-run versions of songs intended for the albums Oh Mercy, World Gone Wrong, Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times, Tell Tale Signs calls to mind something that Dylan himself once sang: "What looks large from a distance / close up ain't really that big."
He has, for instance, relied quite heavily during the last 20 years on Daniel Lanois, the producer of both Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind and, as such, the man largely responsible for turning the skeletal versions of "Most of the Time," "Dignity," "Can't Wait," "Everything Is Broken," and "Series of Dreams" included on Tell Tale Signs' standard two-disc edition into haunting and powerful highlights of Dylan's latter-day canon. (An alternate version of Oh Mercy's "Ring Them Bells" is included on the deluxe, three-disc-plus-photo-book edition.)
And he has also received inspiration from the directors Curtis Hanson, Ronald F. Maxwell, and Niki Caro, who elicited from him the soundtrack compositions "Huck's Tune" (Lucky You), "'Cross the Green Mountain" (Gods and Generals), and "Tell Ol' Bill" (North Country), respectively, each of which Tell Tale Signs includes in its original or alternate rendition.
Surprisingly, Don and David Was, whom many-Dylan included-have disparaged for their production on the Oh Mercy follow-up Under the Red Sky, would seem to deserve praise as well. Although none of their work appears on Tell Tale Signs, there are early versions of "Born in Time" and "God Knows," both of which would sound better after the Was Brothers got through with them.
Perhaps foreshadowing future Bootleg Series volumes, there is one song apiece-"Miss the Mississippi" and a live "Ring Them Bells"-from two completed but never-released (or officially titled) Dylan projects: an album of standards recorded with the producer David Bromberg in 1992 and a series of concerts taped at New York's Supper Club in 1993. Ironically, the "finished" quality of these songs points up both the unfinished quality of many of the others and the extent to which Tell Tale Signs' appeal will probably be limited to hardcore, arcana-mongering Dylan enthusiasts.
At least one Time Out of Mind outtake, however, "Red River Shore," seems as finished as any of that album's intakes. A moving, country-folk recollection of lost love, it was probably disqualified because at nearly eight minutes it wouldn't have fit on what was already a 73-minute album.
Then again, maybe the faith and hope implicit in its last verse simply seemed out of place among what Dylan has called the "skepticism" and concern with "dread realities" conjured by the other songs. "Now, I've heard of a guy who lived a long time ago," he sings, "a man full of sorrow and strife. Then if someone around him died and was dead, / he knew how to bring 'em back to life."
For a songwriter whose "gospel phase" had supposedly ended over a decade earlier, those lines may be the most tell-tale sign of all.