The 8th installment of Bob Dylan's official Bootleg Series releases, Tell Tale Signs, was released in October of last year, immediately met with glowing reviews from Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. This was no surprise to me, but what about those who don't worship at the altar of Mr. Zimmerman? My outspoken Dylan fandom has generally been met with either enthusiasm or extreme disdain in conversation over the years, but very rarely do I hear any hint of indifference when discussing his music with others.
The disdain is uniform. Example: "I can't believe that guy gets paid millions to sing! He couldn't sing a lick to save his life!" bellowed the gentleman in the cubicle next to mine one morning as I attempted to stir myself into a non-vegetative state with a particularly rousing live version of "Maggie's Farm" in lieu of black coffee. I didn't bother rehashing an argument I've had a hundred times before, so I just replied with a simple "Different strokes" and continued working. I've also had some excellent debates over which period of Bob's career was better or worse than another, defended songs from some his worst studio albums, and preached the gospel of the Rolling Thunder Revue to anyone who'd listen. However, I was totally unprepared for something that I heard in a conversation earlier this week.
During a late night viewing of Almost Famous, I was discussing Rolling Stone and Lester Bangs with some friends of friends. One of them commented that he had always found RS to be really pretentious and couldn't read it without getting angry. Standard fare. What came next baffled me. He said something along the lines of "I mean, they'll give Bob Dylan five stars for anything, even though he sounds just like he did in the 60's and hasn't experimented much." I did my best not to cringe, and couldn't believe that a guy who had just talked to me about Delta Blues and moderately obscure 60's and 70's rock for the past hour could be that misinformed about Dylan's post-folk output. I mean, this guy really knew what he was talking about, and our conversation could have gone on for hours had I not had to work in the morning. So instead of taking him to the verbal torture rack, I did my best to let him know that Bob has probably toyed with his musical output more in the past 20 years than most recording artists do in their entire careers (I really didn't sound like an asshole, I swear). He seemed genuinely excited at this discovery, and I gave him a few suggestions of albums to check out. My mind has been on this subject ever since. Do the majority of music fans, those who don't read reviews religiously and seek out every nerdy fact they can about their favorite artists, really feel like Dylan is just phoning it in these days and laughing all the way to the bank? If you subscribe to that school of thought, I implore you to dig a little deeper, because there's treasure underneath that Greatest Hits collection.
Tell Tale Signs is an excellent testament to Dylan's seemingly endless desire to reinvent himself and his songs. Take the alternate version of "Most Of The Time", an underrated song from the critically acclaimed 1989 album Oh Mercy. The original is a reflective dirge for a failed relationship. The lyrics are full of bravado, but the vocal tone is packed with remorse, sorrow and regret. Few could illustrate the mixed bag of emotions that go along with such a situation with this kind of simplicity. It's stuff like this that separates true art from something to hum along to. The alternate is a 3 and a half minute kiss off, just Bob with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, two trusty companions that have never done him wrong. There might be a hint of regret here and there, but when he throws out the dagger of a line "I don't compromise or pretend / I don't care if I ever see her again / Most of the time" this go round, he sure as hell means it...and that's just one song. There's enough quality here to justify me handing this to somebody who's only heard "Blowin' In The Wind" or "Like A Rolling Stone" and be confident that they'd come away knowing that Dylan is not just an aging icon looking to make a quick buck before there isn't a record buying public anymore, but a genuine individual with a true and unadulterated love of American music, and a passion to keep playing it without compromise.