Bob Dylan’s Magesterial “Tell Tale Signs”

There comes a moment in every Dylan concert when you hear someone, halfway through a song, turn to his neighbor and say, “Oh, that’s ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Or whatever the song is he’s finally recognized in its utterly reformed structure.  

In the new issue of Uncut, there’s a wonderfully informative series of interviews, spliced together George Plimpton-style, with many of the participants in the four albums — Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft, and Modern Times — whose session tapes were ransacked for this latest installment in The Bootleg Series — Tell Tale Signs.  Over and over again participants relate how Dylan never plays the same song the same way twice.  This can be frustrating to fans at concerts trying to divine from Dylan’s smoke-shot voice and stop-start phrasing just what the Hell we’re listening to. But when it comes to his release of a 39-song, triple CD collection of outtakes, unreleased songs, and the stray live song, it leads not merely to a collection that fills in fanatics’ blanks.  It delivers up a masterpiece.

If the unreleased songs from Oh Mercy here had been available when that album came out nearly 20 years ago, what was viewed as a return to form would have been understood as something else: the opening salvo in a middle-aged rock star’s white knuckled determination to outdo the songs that, as a younger man, had already delivered the stuff of myth. Then the next year came Under The Red Sky, and Dylan was back to scattershot failed definitions of who and what his purpose was.  We had to wait until Time Out Of Mind, eight years after Oh Mercy‘s release, to get a sense of what late-period Dylan was truly building up to.  When the song “Things Have Changed”  won an Oscar after its appearance on the Wonder Boys soundtrack, by now we were astonished — astonished that an artist of Dylan’s calibre would explore age-appropriate themes of death and redemption with the same black humor and melody as he’d previously ennobled youth.  Yet I think that had we gotten a complete version of 1989’s Oh Mercy — with the additional songs, and different takes released on Tell Tale Signs — we would have had at the outset the proper portents of things to come.  Instead, Oh Mercy came off the way Some Girls and Emotional Rescue had for the Stones in the late ’70s: a brief reprise of greatness, before the long slide.  

To understand just how meaningful it is that Dylan offers up different versions of songs we already liked –diamonds of the same size and weight recut by the master into wholly different gems — just listen to “Someday Baby” on Disk One, and compare it to the version on Modern Life.  The latter is one of that album’s highlights — a jaunty, taunting shuffle.  Oh but the new version, with its martial drumming and slowed down pace sends shivers up the spine.  It is starkly beautiful, a reminder of Dylan’s unsurpassed power to stop us in our tracks.  (He’s been doing it for 45 years.)  The Uncut piece has musicians talking about how in the studio, Dylan is continually experimenting with tempo and different keys to make the music fit the words, not the other way around.  It is this level of experimentation that can lead to wildly different results — and in Dylan’s case, spectacular results for each.

The album’s been out for 24 hours.  There are new albums by Oasis, and David Byrne and Brian Eno, and the Pretenders, all waiting for their turn.  There’s a live album by The Clash that has gotten great reviews.  They’ll just have to wait.  When Dylan releases 39 songs from what has proved to be, to these ears at least, perhaps the most meaningful period in his long career, we don’t need to rush.

Listening to Tell Tale Signs made me think of Peter Matthiessen’s recently released Shadow Country.  Mathiessen’s in his ’80s.  He doesn’t have too much time left.  And he spent the last several years not writing a new novel, but taking his trilogy of related novels about Mr. Watson and the Florida of the 1900s and editing them into a single book.  There’s something to be said for that in this context, only the editor has to be us.  Dylan has now given us the archives of his work since 1989.  The four albums — different producers, a core of similar musicians — are clearly of a piece. Yes, his voice has deteriorated even further over 20 years. But we now have the materials to produce our own version of what Dylan’s been aiming for, by putting together a playlist with songs from the original albums, and the better versions, or different versions, we’ve been given.  Dylan calls his incessant road shows The Never-Ending Tour (and the live songs here, like “Lonesome Day Blues” give you a sense of how entertaining his shows still can be, if you’re close enough to the stage to get the band’s full blast.)  Let’s hope that’s an accurate moniker.  One thing that’s clear is we’ve been given all of the elements of a masterwork we can listen to forever.

One Response to “Bob Dylan’s Magesterial “Tell Tale Signs””

  1. This is a great collection of songs. Mysterious, elusive, enigmatic…just like the man himself. Songs with color and character.

    And if you love the characters Bob’s created here, you should take look at the new novel, BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, a murder mystery set in the rock world in which all the suspects are characters in Bob’s songs.

    An entire album built around Bob’s creations? That’s just the kind of depth this man has. Intrigued? You can get a copy on or go “behind the tracks” at to learn more about the book.

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