Bob Dylan's newly-released "Tell Tale Signs" is the eighth in a series of "bootleg" albums and is made up of discarded studio takes from "Oh Mercy," "Time Out of Mind," and "Modern Times," unreleased songs, movie sound track contributions, and some live performances. The material is available as a three-disc overpriced set or as a two-disc option for less obsessive listeners.
Despite the diversity of song sources, the tone of the album gives it a sense of unity. The bleakness of the songs is unrelenting. The palpable sense of apocalypse in the lyrics that comes at a time of profound national economic confusion transforms "Tell Tale Signs" into another argument for Dylan's prophetic talents.
If there is any relief offered, it comes from Dylan's immersion in American folk and blues music. In this album, he covers Robert Johnson's "32-20 Blues," Jimmie Rodgers' "Miss the Mississippi," and, in a duet with Ralph Stanley, "The Lonesome River."
Some will dismiss parts of the album because the material that ultimately appeared on other albums was lyrically sharper, but having the chance to hear Dylan's development is a real opportunity to see an artist evolving. And there are some puzzles. I can't imagine why "Red River Shore" was left off the "Time Out of Mind" album. The song is the best one on this album, allthough the three version of "Mississippi" are very good. One version of that song appeared on "Love and Theft," but the three versions here have previously been unreleased. I like the simple one that opens the album.
The Bob Dylan who recorded this material is not the Bob Dylan of the mid-1960s. The sublime lyrics are mostly gone, replaced by lyrics that less rarely need interpretation. They are direct cries from the heart. Dylan seems to fear that all his talent has departed, that his world doesn't make sense, that love is gone and can never return, and that surely the spiritual world he thinks will soon be his home has got to be far better than the lonesome landscape in which he wanders here. Out of all this, the fierce, plaintive songs constitute a call to courage for himself and all others who experience life as an ongoing mystery with plenty of tragic clues and a few happy ones, but a mystery ultimately beyond human solution.