After what one scholar called her “battle years,” describing the time of wild and fertile creations of the early 1860s, Emily Dickinson’s later poetry has a calmer, while no less grim, quality, and always faces ultimate truths. In fact, much of her later work draws its strength from her memory of those now-completed psychic wars: the triumphs, the losses and the scars. And listening to Tell Tale Signs, Volume 8 in Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, it makes more sense to compare Dylan to a Civil War-era poet than to place him in the landscape of today’s music.
In part, this is intentional. Dylan is a Civil War buff, and one of the greatest moments on Signs—the closing epic, “’Cross the Green Mountain”—was written for a Civil War movie. But being out of time has long been the project of the onetime Voice of a Generation. Since his born-again period in the early ’80s, Dylan has gone out of his way to move past the temporal and address only the eternal.
It wasn’t until 1997’s Time Out of Mind that he did so at a level that could fairly be compared to his own battle years of the 1960s. In part, Signs is such a triumph because Dylan has always dated his comeback earlier with Oh Mercy in 1989, and this release makes that case indisputably. Leaving the messy-murk production of the original Mercy behind, Dylan turns its songs into stark moments (“Most of the Time”; a live version of “Ring Them Bells”), straightforward and superior to the original versions.
More than the Bootleg Series' other releases, Signs' arrangement and feel play as a complete new work. Songs like “Mississippi”—a version of which appears on all three discs—and “Dignity”—offered twice—thread it all together into one narrative exploring the wisdom, damage and drama of the era. If you ever believed in Bob Dylan but lost track around Blood on the Tracks, Tell Tale Signs is the master’s trail of bread crumbs leading you back.