Only one set of archival releases can compare to Bob Dylan’s ”Bootleg Series” in the annals of popular music, and that would be the Beatles’ Anthology collections, which similarly gave the world a window onto a great recording act’s studio outtakes. But with the Fab Four, you always get the feeling that there was only one possible perfect version of each song; the fascination lies in hearing how certain numbers become classics due to some final, transcendent tweak. Listening to Dylan’s discards, though, there’s little sense of honing or averted near misses; his cuttingroom-floor takes are usually completely viable alternatives to the official renditions. The deluxe three-disc edition of Tell Tale Signs: Bootleg Series No. 8 includes no fewer than three different arrangements of ”Mississippi” recorded in 1997 — a dusty porch blues, an Americana-ish stroll, even a reggae-tinged version — and the main thing they have in common is that they’re all better than the fourth version Dylan finally put on an album four years later. To declare any of these renditions definitive is almost to admit that you don’t really get Dylan, a magnificently impenitent improviser in the studio as well as on stage (where, of course, he reinvents ”Like a Rolling Stone” on a nightly basis).
The ”Bootleg Series” began as an official response to the flood of widely collected vault recordings that had become an illicit cottage industry, with Dylan himself eliminating the pirate middleman. The last two ”Bootleg” releases focused on Dylan’s mid-’60s heyday…but true fans already had a lot of it. (Shhh, don?t tell the feds.) Excitingly, Tell Tale Signs jumps decades ahead to offer an alternate history of a less leaky period: the creative renaissance that started at the end of the 1980s and has been bearing fruit ever since. Most of these tracks are outtakes, alternate versions, or live performances tied to 1989’s Oh Mercy and 1997’s Time Out of Mind, both produced by Daniel Lanois. Dylan has acknowledged butting heads over the producer’s penchant for a ”swamped-up” sound, so maybe the preponderance of stuff from those sessions is meant to prove to us, Lanois, or himself that there were even better records there than the justifiably venerated ones that came out at the time.
Whether he’s intentionally making that case or not, it gets made. It’s a treat to have two superior versions of the despairing ”Can’t Wait” — stripped down not just in the bluesy, less reverb-y arrangements but in its rawer lyrics, which speak even more directly to Time Out of Mind‘s twin themes of mortality and obsessive love. ”My hands are cold/The end of time has just begun,” Dylan sings in a previously unheard verse, between stinging, B.B. King-like licks. ”I’m getting old/Anything can happen now to anyone.” On the heretofore unreleased ”Dreamin’ of You” — a brooding gem that’s hard to imagine sitting on a shelf for more than a decade — he quickly sums up the dual themes of Mind: ”Feel like a ghost in love.” That particular track benefits from the murky Lanois touch, but much of the rest of the generally superb Tell Tale Signs repurposes known material in simple, languid, semi-acoustic settings that hark back to ’70s classics like Blood on the Tracks.
A caveat: To get that last version of ”Mississippi,” you’ll have to buy a deluxe boxed set, which includes a third disc (with 12 extra songs) and runs $110 to $160, versus about 20 bucks for the two-CD set. Since most fans will lust after every track but can’t afford that radical a price point, is it simply understood that Bob is tacitly encouraging fans to…bootleg? A
Download This: Listen to ”Dreamin’ of You” on Rhapsody.com