x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Tell Tale Signs, Bob Dylan

A new collection of rarities shows that age has not diminished this artist, says Burhan Wazir.

Bob Dylan, who turned 67 earlier this year, embraces his own mortality with a compelling sense of dread.
Bob Dylan, who turned 67 earlier this year, embraces his own mortality with a compelling sense of dread.


Anyone born after 1988, around the time Dylan began his "Never Ending Tour", can testify just how mercurial the legendary ­performer's live shows can be. ­Lyrics emerge ­garbled; songs are rearranged mid-performance; and, above it all, ­Dylan's voice ­often strains against the intellectual weight of his own words. At times, he can sound like he's galloping ­towards the finish line, so he can race back to his ­climate-controlled dressing room for a large cup of hot cocoa. With apparent contempt for his own work, he willingly skips over entire phrases. Renowned as a ­master of the English language, ­Dylan occasionally commits extraordinarily heinous crimes against his native tongue in live performances. The lottery of his present-day shows, however, tends to obscure the fact that since 1997, Dylan has recorded some of the most ­arresting music of his ­career. ­Starting in 1997, Time Out of Mind, produced by ­Daniel Lanois, ­inaugurated the third act of Dylan's career with a monumentally bleak record ­dominated by sparse musical tics and themes of impending death (he had just recovered from a ­potentially fatal chest infection). In contrast, 2001's Love and Theft saw him recover his sprightly and often playful insouciance, teasing the expectations of his listeners. Modern Times, released in 2006, meanwhile, unveiled his ­obsession with pre-war blues and the music of his ­childhood. ­Altogether, the ­trilogy has done much to reverse the criticism of a recording career that was in serious decline by the mid-1990s. Tell Tale Signs, much like his­ ­eccentric memoir Chronicles and Martin Scorsese's more ­conventional No Direction Home documentary, presents a fleeting insight into ­Dylan's many distractions and obsessions over the last 20 years. This is by no means a ­complete portrait of the artist as an old man. A live performance of Ring Them Bells from 2003 - the song was originally recorded for Oh Mercy in 1989 - ­reiterates just how much a game of chance a latter-day Dylan show can be. A ­concert ­recording of High Water (For ­Charley Patton), meanwhile, has him in resurgent form. Throughout Tell Tale Signs, the songwriter's studio outtakes and alternative versions prove more ­rewarding listening. The album contains two versions of ­Mississippi and while neither improves on the arrangement Dylan finally ­released, each version documents his ­wandering attentions. A stripped-down recording of Most of the Time, later featured on Oh Mercy, peels back Lanois' ­reverb to reduce the song to a ­simple, at times plaintive, ballad. A ­recording of Red River Shore, an epic from the Time Out of Mind ­sessions ­shimmers ­effortlessly towards a waltz-time ­climax at the seven-and-a-half minute mark. The song ­has memories, moonlight, ­angels and ultimately, a cloak of misery, ­all ­delivered in Dylan's world-weary rasp. Unlike many musicians of his generation, Dylan has steadfastly refused to embrace modern studio trickery: in the 1980s, Neil Young, Tom Petty and Lou Reed all, mostly unsuccessfully, released albums featuring drum machines and ­synthesisers. While much of ­Dylan's output in the same decade suffered from the same heavy hand of digital sorcery, his recordings of the last two decades have again ­embraced the analogue ­imperfections of his earlier work, a trend adopted over the same ­period in ­releases by ­Johnny Cash, Tom Petty and Neil ­Diamond. ­Dylan's duet with Ralph Stanley, The Lonesome River, is a case in point: ­recorded in 1998, before the ­modern-­day roots ­movement entered the mainstream, the song - which pushes and pulls at the ­listener - displays an acute ­understanding of American ­musical folklore. Often, this back-to-basics ­approach by Dylan, who turned 67 earlier this year, has resulted in ­material ­imbued with a sense of his own ­mortality, as well as an ­overriding ­feeling of dread. ­Whereas once the artist found ­mischief in having listeners ­decipher his cryptic ­lyrics, the Dylan of Tell Tale Signs ­forecasts perfect storms, murder and betrayal on the ­horizon. In Cross the Green Mountain, recorded for the soundtrack to Gods and Generals, he sounds ready for another journey: "Memories ­linger, sad yet sweet/And I think of the souls in heaven we'll meet." bwazir@thenational.ae