The prerelease announcement of the eighth in the official Dylan "Bootleg" series — this one covering 1989 to 2006, from Oh Mercy through Modern Times — was met with perhaps a tad less excitement and anticipation than the previous seven. Not that the bard hasn't produced stellar material during the last two decades. Indeed, Modern Times stands as the best album released in 2006, while there have been numerous definitive songs — "Dignity," featured in this set as two different alternate versions, among them — that capture the political, social and emotional zeitgeist of our times as well as, if not better than, anything any artist has created in any medium. It's just that most of us Dylan fans expect there to be even greater material in the vaults from his earlier years — be it Dylan as folk revolutionary or Dylan as speed-crazed, Rimbaud-fed, rock revolutionary. The release of the legendary Live at "Royal Albert Hall" concert (Vol. 4) was a no-brainer, of course. But many of us also discovered that the alternate version of, say, "Stuck Inside of Mobile" (featured on Vol. 7: No Direction Home) was nowhere near as great as the original, official version ... which is why it probably took the alternate version so many years to finally be released.
But it's perhaps this lack of anticipation that makes Tell Tale Signs such a stunning and wonderful experience, even upon first listen. There isn't one second-rate track among the 27 featured here. Both CDs kick off with alternate versions of "Mississippi," both remarkably different and arguably better than the version finally released on Love and Theft — one's a pure blues rendition; the other more in a Jimmie Rodgers, old-time country vein (there's a third version on a third disc that comes with the deluxe "book" version of the set, which also features some excellent stuff but is awfully pricey).
In addition to unreleased tracks and alternate versions, there are soundtrack-only tunes and six incredible live performances, including a terrific, harmony-laden rendition of Rev. Gary Davis' "Cocaine Blues." And speaking of blues, the set features the first-ever cover of a Robert Johnson tune ("32-20 Blues") by Zimmy. Meanwhile, an alternate rendition of "Born in Time," basically a throwaway on Under the Red Sky (an album produced by Detroit's own Don Was), is gorgeous; one imagines that it won't be long before another singer adopts the beautiful love song and transforms it into a hit, as both Billy Joel and Garth Brooks did with "Make You Feel My Love" from Time Out of Mind. It's the mark of a truly great songwriter when his songs are open to so many different interpretations in so many different styles and genres, even as done by the writer himself, and that's been one of the main components in Dylan's brilliance throughout his remarkable career.
Did you have any idea that "'Cross the Green River," a song Dylan wrote for Ted Turner's Civil War movie, Gods and Generals, is among the most poignant things he's ever done? I didn't until I heard it here, closing out the set. Whoever decided to leave "Series of Dreams" off Oh Mercy must've been crazy. And on and on it goes. ... Perhaps most treasured by this aficionado is an alternate version of "Everything is Broken," which the excellent liner notes (by Larry "Ratso" Sloman) reveal producer Daniel Lanois thought was a throwaway and wanted to leave off Oh Mercy. And just as the song perfectly captured that aforementioned zeitgeist during the reign of the first George Bush, it makes even more sense during and following the eight-year reign of his moronic son. The lyrics here are almost all completely different; one imagines that the great poet just threw them out there, stream-of-consciousness style, while recording it. Interestingly, the song's lyrical breaks are now personal as opposed to political (best lines: "Saw James Dean in a picture once, comin' in from the cold/Said 'Geez, I hope to look that good if I get to be that old!'") because Dylan has always known that the two are intertwined. Even though some of these tracks are nearly 20 years old, they all still stand as snapshots of the present.
What seems most remarkable about this set is the idea that the stuff Bob Dylan originally chose to not release is far superior to the "best" stuff released by some of today's "hottest" hit makers. Ironically, Dylan has said in several interviews in the past few years that if he was starting out today, he probably wouldn't even pursue music, based on the lameness of the music biz and the overall modern scene. "Genius" is one of the most overused words in pop music and the arts in general. But make no mistake about it: Tell Tale Signs proves that a true genius still walks among us.
Bob Dylan plays Saturday, Nov. 8, at Wings Stadium, 3600 Vanrick Dr., Kalamazoo; 269-345-1125.
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.