Bob Dylan
Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 — Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006
Columbia Records
2.5 out of 5 stars

It’s been a while since Bob Dylan threw on a 10-gallon hat and started writing cowboy songs, and it’s no secret his days of protest and poetry are long over. Tell Tale Signs, the eighth release in Bob Dylan’s bootleg series, is a collection of songs from the last 20 years, a period that has seen Dylan’s sound evolve away from Woody Guthrie and toward Hank Williams. It compiles rare and live tracks from 1989 to 2006, taken from the leftovers of four Dylan albums: Oh Mercy, World Gone Wrong, Time Out of Mind and Modern Times. But for an album that comprises 20 years-worth of material, the lack of diversity from track to track makes the collection sound like it hardly covers a year of output. Dylan invariably adheres to a standard blues form, generally accented with gospel twang and gravelly vocals.

Each track seems completely detached from the current face of popular music and oblivious to its rapid evolution. When this detachment works, the songs feel timeless. “32-20 Blues,” a B-side from World Gone Wrong, successfully evokes the spirit of Robert Johnson and delivers a powerful, foot-stomping sound. But when this failure-to-affiliate attitude backfires, the album sways between boring and irrelevant. In “Huck’s Tune,” an alternate version of a song from the soundtrack of the 2007 film “Lucky You,” even Dylan seems bored as he lazily croons over a southern-influenced church song.

As Tell Tale Signs progresses, it becomes exceedingly difficult to distinguish one track from the rest. Chord progressions echo one another and lyrics take on identical themes. But after all, this is still Bob Dylan. Despite the repetition, the songwriting is top-notch and helps provide some much-needed excitement. “Most of the Time,” an alternate version of a track from Oh Mercy, captures the enthusiasm that defined the Dylan of yore.

But the fact remains: Dylan was in his sixties when he recorded much of the songs compiled here, and his advanced age occasionally works against him. His voice lacks the strength that resounded through his early work. Often, especially on “High Water (For Charley Patton),” Dylan struggles to stay in command of his own voice, wavering between a deep warble and an unnatural gospel rasp.

At his peak, Dylan wrote songs that spoke for an entire generation. He was the master at tapping into the fears and hopes of millions and giving them context. But the recent work of Dylan doesn’t seem to speak for anyone in particular. Instead, it reflects a different time where people travel by locomotive and Sundays are spent at church. Needless to say, this “bootleg” compilation is not for the casual Dylan fan. But for those who can’t get enough, Tell Tale Signs adequately sums up the last two decades of the legend’s musical canon and offers a rare glimpse into his recent creative mindset.

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