Reviewed by Darren Hirst
"Those old songs are my lexicon and prayer book. All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from 'Let Me Rest On That Peaceful Mountain' to 'Keep On The Sunny Side'. You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back toward those songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing 'I Saw The Light.' I've seen the light, too." This was Bob Dylan speaking in 1997 - a period which provides 11 songs on his new 3-disc set 'Tell Tale Signs' (10 out-takes from his 'Time Out Of Mind' set and one live recording). On 16th November 2008 (the day I finished this review), Dylan played a live show in Kanata, Ontario, Canada. He didn't include a single song which features on this box set. For those who take note of those kind of things, he did include "I Believe In You" and "Every Grain Of Sand" - two of his most important devotional songs. So we shouldn't see this as a new Bob Dylan album (he certainly isn't taking time out to promote it), rather it is a collection of recordings sanctioned by him for release and as the box proclaims, the next stage in Columbia's on-going Bootleg series of rare Dylan recordings - Volume 8, for the record. So are these recordings worth the trouble - or simply the record company over-milking the cow? Well, for those who are concerned, you can buy this set in bite-sized segments.
There is a 1-CD set and a 2-CD set as well as the mammoth 3-CD, 39-track version which comes complete with two books about his career. I can't however suggest that the third CD is any less worth having than the first two. There are songs which have never been released before; songs which went through changes in the studio and of which alternate versions are presented; songs from film soundtracks; and live recordings. The studio tracks are mostly drawn from four periods - 1989 when he was recording 'Oh Mercy', 1993 when he was recording 'World Gone Wrong', 1997 from the 'Time Out Of Mind' sessions, and 2006 when he was working on 'Modern Times'. Consequently, most of the songs are Dylan compositions - the 1993 songs are from other composers as at that point he was working on an album of traditional folk songs. As we consider themes in the writing, it is noticeable that many of the songs share the preoccupations of the albums mentioned above. The narrator is intent on journeying to a far off place but is delayed by earthly concerns and loves. This is clearly seen in "Marchin' To The City", an unreleased song from the 'Time Out Of Mind' era which like the other songs from that album is a song of a waylaid journey. ("Well, I'm sitting in church in an old wooden chair/I knew nobody would look for me there/Sorrow and pity/Rule the earth and the skies/Looking for nothing in anyone's eyes/Once I had a pretty girl/She did me wrong/Now I'm marchin' to the city/And the road ain't long.") This song which speaks of being "chained to the earth, like a silent slave" has echoes of Isaac Watts' hymn "We're marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God". Several songs appear more than once. These include "Mississippi" which was first officially released on the later "Love And Theft" album but was originally written for "Time Out Of Mind" and perhaps makes better sense amongst the journeying songs associated with that earlier disc. The narrator bemoans that there is "only one thing I did wrong - I stayed in Mississippi a day too long."
This is a constant theme - today's concerns have prevented the traveller from getting closer to where he wants to be. There is one version of "Mississippi" on each of the discs in this set. The song of musing over broken love "Most Of The Time" makes two appearances, as does that search for true values, "Dignity". Also present in two versions (one live, one studio) is the hymn-like "Ring Them Bells" which casts the faith that Dylan insisted doesn't need a name or title, in a recent interview, in terms distinctly drawn from the Christian lexicon: "Ring them bells, St Peter/Where the four winds blow/Ring them bells with an iron hand/So the people will know./Ring them bells, sweet Martha/For the poor man's son/Ring them bells, so the world will know/That God* is one." (*Changed to "The Lord is one" on the live version.) Not all of the songs have such eternal concerns - "32-20 Blues" is an old Robert Johnson song in which the narrator threatens a straying lover with a gun. "Cocaine Blues" is just what it sounds like, a song often associated with the Rev Gary Davis, but even there, there is a moral at the tail: "Cocaine is for horses/and it's not for men/Doctor says it will kill you/But he don't say when." The old folk and blues songs are frequently delightful in Dylan's hands but on these albums they seem a little out of place as the greater number of songs around them return to Dylan's usual preoccupations. But this is to misunderstand their importance. They are, as much as the Bible or any other source, the inspiration for the style and language of his work. He draws on the classic music stylings of the '50s and moulds them into the shape he desires. Similarly, with the words, he borrows, steals and draws from many, many sources but ends up with something that distinctly belongs to him. This can be particularly seen in the song "Cross The Green Mountain" which was originally written for the movie Gods And Generals and which closes disc two here. It uses words from as many as 10 Civil War poems but becomes a song which deals with the Book of Revelation and the end of the world more than it tells us about that conflict.
The Civil War that Dylan is concerned with takes place in each individual's heart. "I cross the green mountain/I set by the stream/Heaven blazing in my head/I dreamt a monstrous dream/Something came up out of the sea/Swept through the land of the rich and the free./.the streets are broad/All must yield to the avenging God/The world is old, the world is grey/Lessons of life can't be learned in a day/I watch and wait/And I listen while I stand/To the music that comes from/A far better land./I'm 10 miles outside the city/And I'm lifted away/In an ancient light/That is the start of day." This song may be one of the best things that Mr Dylan has ever written. There are many gems in this album set and very little dross and hearing all of these songs together helps the listener to better identify the key concerns of Dylan's writing since the time of his career resurgence 20 years ago. They are best exemplified in the alternate version of "Ain't Talkin'" which in its developed form originally appeared on 'Modern Times'. The narrator has begun a journey on a difficult road, and whilst passing through a "mystic garden" he has been attacked from behind. Now he pledges to continue on his journey but in quiet and contemplation. "They say prayer has the power to help/So pray for me, mother/In the human heart, an evil spirit can dwell/I'm trying to love my neighbour/And do good unto others/But, oh mother, things aren't going well."
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