December 29, 2008

Dylan's Songs of Revelation

As the music released over the past twelve months is assessed, Bob Dylan’s Tell Tale Signs invariably emerges as one of the best albums of 2008. You won’t get any argument here that it ranks among the finest (if not the overall best) music released this year. Regarding it within the context of an album, though, strikes this writer as a bit precarious in describing this staggering collection.

Primarily comprised of alternate, live, and demo versions of tracks previously issued on proper albums, it isn’t comparable to altogether original recordings issued as isolated creative efforts.

As well, considering the caliber of music in question—that it’s culled from one of the strongest, most fertile eras in Dylan’s storied career—with rare exception, any possible contender inevitably pales in comparison. It’s like critiquing the latest crop of new fiction and then, incidentally, a Faulkner manuscript is unearthed and submitted for analogous scrutiny.

That said, what Tell Tale Signs undoubtedly achieves is in demonstrating how Dylan, rather than being overshadowed by his own back pages—a fate he’d succumbed to with ambivalence for much of the ‘80s—reassessed his creative purpose and recommitted to his craft.

Even in this set’s most embryonic performances, like the piano demo of “Dignity” or the transitory shuffle that drives the first of two included takes of “Mississippi,” the foundation is solid and primed for more refined productions, culminating, in these instances, on Greatest Hits Volume 3 and Time Out of Mind, respectively.

Other alternate cuts, which feature more fleshed-out arrangements, rival and in some cases arguably eclipse the quality of their more familiar counterparts. Such is strikingly the case with “Someday Baby,” as Dylan steels an incessant rhythm and swagger, asserting a far more ominous tone than the honky-tonk rumble on Modern Times. Also, his guttural, unctuous romp through “Can’t Wait” and pensive, unaccompanied take on “Most of the Time” could have just as well made the final cut on their intended albums.

An important facet of Dylan’s artistry underscored here is the way in which his lyrics aren’t inextricably bound to one song, but are of such integrity that they bolster the ones in which they dwell. “Dreamin’ of You” and “Marchin’ to the City,” in particular, hold up as compositions in their own right, yet both would eventually manifest on subsequent tracks, the former surfacing on “Standing in the Doorway” while “’Til I Fell in Love With You” would incorporate phrases of the latter.

Any discussion of this period of Dylan’s career inevitably includes Daniel Lanois, who in his roles as producer and musician undoubtedly contributed to shaping the music’s resultant texture and direction. What’s evident in listening to this set, though, is just how impregnable these tracks sound in more primitive incarnations.

Ultimately, it is in fact that quintessence, that core spark surging through this music — the signal that Bob Dylan had tapped into his genius in ways he hadn’t done in years — which makes Tell Tale Signs more than just a collection of assorted songs from various projects, more than just an album. Indeed, it’s a revelation.