TERRY GROSS, host:
Although it's called the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, the CDs of Dylan's previously unreleased or alternate tracks are being released by Columbia Records. Volume eight, called "Tell-Tale Signs," is the latest in the series. The other volumes dealt with Dylan's early career. But volume eight contains songs of more recent vintage, recorded between 1989 and 2006. Rock critic Ken Tucker says this volume offers a fresh way to look at Dylan's latter-day career.
(Soundbite of song "Series of Dreams")
Mr. BOB DYLAN: (Singing) I was thinking of a series of dreams, Where nothing comes up to the top. Everything stays down where its wounded, And comes to a permanent stop.
KEN TUCKER: That barreling thunder of song called "Series of Dreams" is a track from the sessions for the 1989 Bob Dylan album "Oh Mercy" but ultimately left off the album. Like many of the songs on "Tell-Tale Signs," once you hear them, you're left wondering, why in the world would you leave that off an album? I love its breakneck pace and Dylan's description of dreams as a place, quote, "where the middle and the bottom drop out." Indeed, you can hear much of the music on Columbia Records Bootlegs series as a series of dreams, frequently superb songs made from bad or troubled dreams. Take this track, an unreleased song from 1997's "Time Out of Mind."
(Soundbite of song "Marchin' To The City")
Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) 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. Anyone's eyes. Once I had pretty girls. Did me wrong. Now I'm marching to the city. And the road ain't long...
TUCKER: I love the bluesy, jazzy instrumentation there, the brush drums and light organ fills. There's the opening image of Dylan hiding in a church, healing from a broken romance, attesting that, quote, "nothing can heal me now except your touch." He's up to old tricks, using language that could be addressed to Jesus or to a woman, until that trick is resolved into a much stronger tactic, castigating a quote unquote "pretty gal" who's done him wrong. By the time he tosses off the superlative line, I was hoping we could dream life's pleasant dreams, you know you've arrived at the central theme of latter day Bob Dylan, utter pessimism that can be jolted into life only by lashing out with musical defiance and grace.
(Soundbite of song "Mississippi")
Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Every step of the way, we walked the line. Your days are numbered, so are mine. Time is piling up, We struggle and we stray. We're all boxed in, nowhere to escape. City's just a jungle...
TUCKER: There are two different versions here of "Mississippi," a song from "Time Out of Mind," and clearly, a central song to Dylan's thinking, given the vigor with which he performs it, pressing down hard on every word, every image. The emptiness is endless, he asserts, the most concise summation of the theme of so many songs here. The man who once seemed hell-bent on transforming rock and roll and later hell-bent on getting into heaven now says he's, quote, "got no future, got no past," and neither do we. We are all boxed in, he asserts, nowhere to escape. He's grimly playful, courting interpretations of his own career moves when he sings, you can always come back, but you can't come back all the way.
Yet, anyone who has seen Dylan perform in concert over the past 10 years knows that it's not a matter of coming back. He is, on his frequent best nights, entirely present, often loud and blasting with great ferocity, totally committed to older forms, blues, bluegrass, and honkytonk country, pre-60s folk music. To my ears, all of these elements converge and reach a peak in unreleased 2005 song, "Can't Escape From You."
(Soundbite of song "Can't Escape From You")
Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Oh the evening train is rolling. All along the homeward way. All my hopes are over the horizon. All my dreams have gone in vain. The hillside darkly shaded. Stars fall from above. All the joys of earth have faded. The night's untouched my love. I'll be here 'til tomorrow.
TUCKER: Dylan constantly finds ways of making simple forms in melodies to pick on new intensities. He sounds freshly engaged in recordings that closed out and began the centuries. Dylan remains utterly central to America's musical enterprise. There's no one this side of Duke Ellington who's had such a long, varied career and has remained so endlessly inventive. How lucky we are to have even his false starts, his rejects, his erasures, and his first drafts.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Bob Dylan's, "Tell-Tale Signs, the Bootlegs Series Volume Eight." You can download broadcast of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.