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Critic's pick: Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8 — Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006

Through Tell Tale Signs' two discs, their two-plus-hour running times and the nearly two decades from which the music is drawn, Bob Dylan sounds as confounding and fascinating as ever. Three unissued versions of Mississippi? Two rootsier reapplications of Dignity? A leaner Series of Dreams, a song that debuted on an earlier edition of Dylan's archival Bootleg Series?

Well, why not? Tell Tale Signs proves, if nothing else, a Dylan song is never cast in stone — not even a rolling one. Aside from an alternate take of Everything Is Broken, which still sports the same spry groove — but with a sparser design — as its original 1989 version, the anthology warps, complicates and, at times, streamlines Dylan's most recent music.

The most immediate insight is offered on demolike versions of songs from Dylan's best albums of the '80s (1989's Oh Mercy) and '90s (1997's Time Out of Mind). Both recordings were produced by Canadian sound sculpturer Daniel Lanois, whose atmospheric enhancements made the albums among the most distinctive entries in the Dylan catalog. The original versions are still preferable to the blueprints on Tell Tale Signs. But the fascinating intimacy in a solo acoustic reading of Oh Mercy's Most of the Time is both a throwback to the Blood on the Tracks folk renewal of the mid-'70s and a forecast of the Americana slant to come on Dylan's more recent albums, Love and Theft and Modern Times.

In Tell Tale Signs' bravest moment, Dylan offers a 2003 concert version of Love and Theft's High Water full of scrappy electric fire. Now, if Dylan really wanted to shake things up, he could issue a full live album of a recent performance. The folk faithful probably would burst into flames upon hearing how a Dylan chestnut is treated onstage these days. The rest of us would rejoice at his sense of relentless reinvention.

But the true highlight is saved for last. Recorded for a TV film on the Civil War called Gods and Generals, Dylan penned an eight-minute meditation of unending loss called 'Cross the Green Mountain. Though previously issued on the film's soundtrack in 2002, the tune has been largely forgotten. On Tell Tale Signs, it is a chilling epilogue created by Dylan's road band, then with guitarist Larry Campbell doubling on violin, and augmented by Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench. Echoes of the spiritual and political fire that have long fueled Dylan's most dramatic music abound. But so do human elements of death, remembrance and almost unconquerable fear. "It's the last day's last hour of the last happy year," Dylan sings over the twilight cast of Tench's organ orchestration. That this regal view of doom is preceded by a 1998 summit with bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley on The Lonesome River, originally issued on Stanley's Clinch Mountain Country, might suggest a hearty stylistic leap. But the cheery string serenade of Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys band is Tell Tale Signs' ultimate deception. Upon hearing these two sagely voices in curiously effective harmony (Dylan? Harmonizing?) the pain becomes as great as the loss pervading Green Mountain. But the solitude the song conveys from a riverbank at midnight is simply more singular. A tell tale sign of the modern day Dylan indeed.