Around the time, I think, his “Eureka” album came out, I interviewed Jim O’Rourke. It was O’Rourke’s most conventional, song-based album to date, but he still had the musical outlook of an improvising musician. He wouldn’t be touring the album, he told me, because he never wanted to play the same thing more than once. Even a radically rearranged version of a song would be in a way dishonest, he thought. The best way for an insatiable creative force like O’Rourke to make music, it transpired, was to start with a totally clean sheet every single time he picked up an instrument.
I remembered this the other day, listening to “Tell Tale Signs” and thinking about the comparable intransigence of Bob Dylan. O’Rourke and Dylan aren’t a perfect pair to measure up against each other, of course, for any number of reasons. But for a start, I guess O’Rourke comes from an avant-garde background where the performance is detached from the idea of the song, whereas Dylan’s approach privileges songs as sacred documents which can be bent into infinite new shapes, but retain their integrity.
This, obviously, is the gist of “Tell Tale Signs”. Across the three CDs (and I’m afraid you’re probably going to need to buy the exorbitantly-priced 3CD version), he has two goes at each of “Most Of The Time”, “Dignity”, “Red River Shore”, “Born In Time”, “Can’t Wait” and “Marchin’ To The City”, and three at “Mississippi”. What emerges is an impression of Dylan, more than ever, as someone who regards albums as mere snapshots in time. The versions of songs that made it onto, say, “Oh Mercy”, aren’t necessarily the ones that he thinks are best, they’re just the ones that made most sense on the day.
“Tell Tale Signs”, then, is a document of songs in constant flux, an exploration of how Dylan’s obsessive quest to look at his own work in new ways expands far beyond his live shows. The live tracks here, as it happens, are some of the least interesting things in this collection, though a notable exception is a 2003 take on “High Water (For Charley Patton)”, one of my favourite late-period Dylan songs, given a full-blooded rock makeover.
“Love And Theft” and (the to my mind slightly overrated) “Modern Times” don’t get much of a look-in, actually, apart from that “High Water”, an alternate version of “Ain’t Talkin’” and a superbly elegaic version of “Someday Baby”, where the familiar jauntiness is replaced with a brooding momentum. The latter kicks off a fantastic sequence through the guts of Disc One, followed up with “Red River Shore” (the set’s greatest unreleased song, though I’m torn between this version and the one on Disc Three as my favourite. In Dylanworld, mind you, we shouldn’t have anything so reductive as a favourite version), “Tell Ole Bill”, a ravishing “Born In Time” and “Can’t Wait”.
Maybe Dylan sees his own songs the way he – and, come to that, the brightest folk singers – always approached the songs on Harry Smith’s “Anthology Of American Folk Music” – as ancient but still living entities that should not be preserved in aspic, but constantly messed about with, repeatedly adapted, if only to prove that the innate quality of the songs can withstand any vagaries of mood or fashion. Dylan might change the way a song works, of course, but he still operates within pretty strict musical parameters: only the odd penchant for reggae pacing (Disc 3’s stab at “Mississippi”) strays much from venerable American tradition.
Not that we want Dylan to stray, of course: one Mark Ronson remix in the catalogue is probably enough. Anyway, Disc Two is probably the weakest component of the package, though still full of gems: a pleasantly dazed slouch through “Mississippi”; a jauntily bouncing version of, incongruously enough, “Dignity”; a resonant duet with Ralph Stanley on “The Lonesome River”.
It’s all compelling for anyone with an interest in Dylan, as you might expect. But with it also comes the frustrating implication that we’ll never see the entire picture. If Neil Young’s “Archives” will eventually, as promised, meticulously document every move Young has made in the past 40-odd years, “Tell Tale Signs” reminds us that Dylan has a much more capricious attitude towards his life’s work. Like “Chronicles”, the picture that emerges is fragmentary, often enigmatic, providing occasional glimpses of revelation rather than full disclosure.
Songs spin backwards and forwards through time, changing radically, but often on a passing whim instead of a linear evolution. Nothing is certain, resolved, remotely finished. It initially seems to answer a few questions about how Dylan works, but eventually only adds yet more puzzles and dead-end trails to the myth. And, of course, adds a bunch more great recordings to the canon, too.