Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs

I had read only a few reviews of the latest Dylan release, “Bootleg series 8: Tell Tale Signs”, before becoming fatigued and mildly irritated. Oh, they all say the same things, these music journalists, and they recite them over and over. Dylan is described as a ‘curmudgeon’, he is said be to ‘obsessed with his own mortality’ and exploring ‘darker and darker themes in his music’ and so on. What has Bob Dylan done to deserve such critics? I might agree that 1997’s “Time out of mind” and 1989’s “Oh Mercy” contained lyrics which could be said to contain a certain bitterness and cynicism – but I might have said the same about ‘Highway 61 Revisisted’ or a dozen other Dylan albums. If anything, his two most recent albums – “Modern Times” and “Love and Theft” – contain some of the most freewheeling and – yes – even fun music of his entire career. This is, after all, the man who on “Modern Times” sings,

I got the porkchops, she got the pie
She ain’t no angel and neither am I

More eros than thanatos there, to merely continue the theme so many journalists love.

Tell Tale Signs does not sound to me like the work of an old man with little time left in this world anymore than Dylan’s first self titled album does, an album which contains such high spirited tunes as “In my time of dying”, “Fixing to die” and “See that my grave is kept clean”. Songs of this variety have been an ever present part of Dylan’s career, and are a vital part of the folk song catalogue that he continues to borrow from to this day. So we shall disregard what the vast majority of music journalists say – I rarely read them anyway. What can I tell you, then, about Tell Tale Signs? I might start by mentioning that it is a three CD collection of alternate takes and unreleased material spanning the years 1989 to the present. It might also be worth mentioning that it is another remarkable release from Dylan, who continues to surprise critics and admirers alike with the quality of the material he chooses not to include on his albums. Perhaps the highlight of the set is a previously unreleased song, and without doubt an instant classic, “Red River Shore”. The sentiment is a timeless one; evidently the singer still longs for the girl he once knew long ago – she must have made quite an impression.

Well I sat by her side and for a while I tried
To make that girl my wife
She gave me her best advice and she said
Go home and lead a quiet life
Well I been to the East and I been to the West
And I been out where the black winds roar
Somehow though I never did get that far
With the girl from the Red River shore

There isn’t any great experimentation on “Red River Shore”, either musically or lyrically; the words and the tune are in perfect keeping with folk tradition, anachronistic though it may seem. But of course Dylan isn’t trying to do anything particularly new, he’s merely trying to perfect the art he’s spent his whole life working on. We expect novelty, even require it in our artists, but in “Red River Shore”, if Dylan has created a song just like every other folk song of its kind he has, more than that, created a summation of all those preceding folk songs. Novelty is something, evidently, that Bob Dylan is no longer interested in. On “Tell Tale Signs” Dylan is just doing what he’s always done, and he’s still succeeding, brilliantly.


~ by georgemorison on October 26, 2008.

3 Responses to “Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs”

  1. Nice old songs/thieving price for proper 3 disc version (1 disc of unreleased titles would have sufficed).

    Any reviewer who fails to comment on thieving price is failing aptly to review.

  2. So… what you’re saying is you’d like less material on the actual content of the album?

  3. Nobody pisses off their own fans quite like Bob Dylan. If he’s not going electric or being ‘born again’ then he’s charging too much for his records. You can tell how annoyed the ‘Bob Buyer’ is, I mean he’s really annoyed by it all. Now, I don’t give a damn about the price of the set, for as far as I’m concerned, the record company can charge as much as they like; whether or not you want to pay for it is entirely your business. For all I care you can download it illegally. I just review the music.

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