Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Sunday, May 17, 2009

It's true enough that "[t]he one genuinely unprecedented element of the band's sound is [Dylan's] singing voice, which at this point is a wonder on the order of a wrecked 67 Saab that still manages to start even though the rust has penetrated clear through to the steering wheel." What's interesting is that, on the evidence of "Tell Tale Signs" he doesn't have to sound quite as rheumy and ravaged as all that. It's a stylistic choice.

It is popular to speak of the three sides of new material that preceded "Together Through Life" as a kind of a trilogy, Dylan Redeemed, if you will. What the new release, and "Tell Tale Signs" actually establish is that his creative renaissance started quite a bit earlier, and is ongoing. The two sets also demonstrate that although Dylan doesn't necessarily regard his songs as complete when they are released, he is mindful that an album is an artifact. "Together Through Life" is an appealing set of songs-- the first time he's worked with a collaborator on lyrics since "Desire"-- but it's also an appealing package that comes with some nice goodies. There's a sticker, and a poster, like they used to do in the 70's, and a dvd interview, and a cd with the "Friends & Neighbors" show from the Theme Time Radio Hour. You wanna sell CDs in the mp3 era? Give some value.

Overall I'd say that The Bootleg Series has been a genuine artistic success to date. These are not merely collections of outtakes and live versions of familiar material-- although there have been sets that have mostly historical value, for the most part what these sets are doing is recontextualizing Dylan's body of work. This isn't really something new-- "Biograph" was intended to work that way, and so too were at least some of the live releases over the years. "Live '66" is a document, for example, the way that "Before the Flood" is, but what both are documenting is his collaboration with The Band, a creative period that is otherwise comparatively under-documented. "Live '75"-- the Rolling Thunder Review set is a companion to "Hard Rain"-- same tour, same band, but radically different music. The point of "Live '64" has always seemed to me to be in the audience reaction to material which was unknown to them. If the "Judas" exchange is at the center of "Live 66", than the complete lack of audience reaction to "Even the President of the United States must stand naked" is what makes "Live '64" interesting-- that was probably the last time the line failed to evoke a response.

With all that behind us we are now able to listen to "Tell Tale Signs" and understand it. In an odd way this is the Dylan album that I've been wanting and waiting for for the past 15 years or so. The side tells us what he's really been up to lately. It can't be denied that his work over that period was spotty, but it is now also clear that there was quite a bit that was solid, and some that was as great as his best. We can listen to this material and notice that the musicianship is excellent, and recall that he's always played with great musicians, and always had a pretty specific sound in mind. Then we can turn to "Together Though Life" and realize that, like his radio show, it is a surprisingly warm gesture from a figure who has always been at considerable pains to keep himself at arm's length.

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