(This article is an expanded version of a review that I wrote when this album first came out. I was really unhappy about the way that the magazine, who commissioned me to do it, published it. They changed the title. They printed it in a way that removed paragraph breaks and they made editing changes to it without consultation. Needless to say, I stopped freelancing for them shortly afterwards. I revisited the article, originally just with the intention of restoring it to the way it was meant to be but then as I read it and listened to the music, I figured perhaps there was more to say. It concentrates on the spiritual and faith-based references in Mr Dylan’s lyrics but touches on other matters too.)
“Those old songs are my lexicon and prayer book. All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from `Let Me Rest on that Peaceful Mountain’ to `Keep on the Sunny Side.’ You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back toward those songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing `I Saw the Light.’ I’ve seen the light, too.”
This was Bob Dylan speaking in 1997 – a period which provides 11 songs on his 3-disc set “Tell Tale Signs” (10 out-takes from his “Time Out of Mind” set and 1 live recording).
On the 16th of November 2008 (the day I finished writing my original review of this box set), Dylan played a live show in Kanata, Ontario, Canada. He didn’t include a single song which features on this box set. For those who take note of those kind of things, he did include “I Believe in You” and “Every Grain of Sand” – two of his most important devotional songs. So we shouldn’t see this as an album that was compiled by Bob Dylan but rather an album that was put together by those who had been given permission to trawl his unreleased recordings and his record company (he certainly wasn’t taking time out to promote it), rather it is a collection of recordings sanctioned by him for release and as the box proclaims, the next stage in Columbia’s on-going Bootleg series of rare Dylan recordings – Volume 8, for the record.
So, are these recordings worth the trouble – or simply the record company over-milking the cow?
Well, for those who are concerned, you can buy this set in bite-sized segments. There is a 1-cd set and a 2-cd set as well as the mammoth 3-cd, 39 track version which comes complete with two books about his career. I can’t however suggest that the 3rd cd is any less worth having than the first two.
There are songs which have never been released before; songs which went through changes in the studio and of which alternate versions are presented; songs from film soundtracks; and live recordings.
The studio tracks are mostly drawn from 4 periods – 1989 when he was recording “Oh Mercy”, 1993 when he was recording “World Gone Wrong”, 1997 from the “Time Out of Mind” sessions, and 2006 when he was working on “Modern Times”. Consequently, most of the songs are Dylan compositions – the 1993 songs are from other composers as at that point he was working on an album of traditional folk songs.
As we consider themes in the writing, it is noticeable that many of the songs share the pre-occupations of the albums mentioned above. The narrator is intent on journeying to a far-off place but is delayed by earthly concerns and loves. This is clearly seen in “Marchin’ to the City”, an unreleased song from the Time Out of Mind era which like the other songs from that album is a song of a waylaid journey.
“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 in anyone’s eyes
Once I had a pretty girl,
She did me wrong,
Now I’m marchin’ to the city
And the road ain’t long”
This song has echoes of Isaac Watts’ hymn “We’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God”.
Several songs appear more than once. These include “Mississippi” which was first officially released on the later “Love and Theft” album but was originally written for “Time Out of Mind” and perhaps makes better sense amongst the journeying songs associated with that earlier disc. The narrator bemoans that there is “only one thing I did wrong – I stayed in Mississippi a day too long”. This is a constant theme – today’s concerns have prevented the traveller from getting closer to where he wants to be. There is one version of “Mississippi” on each of the discs in this set.
The song of musing over broken love “Most of the Time” makes two appearances, as does that search for true values, “Dignity”. Also present in two versions (one live, one studio) is the hymn-like “Ring Them Bells” which casts the faith that Dylan insisted doesn’t need a name or title, in a recent interview, in terms distinctly drawn from the Christian lexicon:
“Ring Them Bells, St Peter
Where the four winds blow
Ring them bells with an iron hand
So, the people will know…… (………..)
Ring Them Bells, sweet Martha
For the poor man’s son
Ring them bells, so the world will know
That God* is one”
(*Changed to “The Lord is One” on the live version)
Not all of the songs have such eternal concerns – “32-20 Blues” is an old Robert Johnson song in which the narrator threatens a straying lover with a gun. “Cocaine Blues” is just what it sounds like, a song often associated with the Rev. Gary Davis, but even there, there is a moral at the tail:
“Cocaine is for horses
and it’s not for men.
Doctor says it will kill you
But he don’t say when”
The old folk and blues songs are frequently delightful in Dylan’s hands but on these albums, they seem a little out of place as the greater number of songs around them return to Dylan’s usual preoccupations. But this is to misunderstand their importance. They are, as much as the Bible or any other source, the inspiration for the style and language of his work. He draws on the classic music stylings of the 50s and moulds them into the shape he desires. Similarly, with the words, he borrows, steals, and draws from many, many sources but ends up with something that distinctly belongs to him.
This can be particularly seen in the song “Cross the Green Mountain” which was originally included in the movie “Gods and Generals” and which closes Disc Two here. It uses words from as many as 10 Civil War poems but becomes a song which deals with the Book of Revelation and the end of the world more than it tells us about that conflict. The Civil War that Dylan is concerned with takes place in each individual’s heart.
“I Cross the Green Mountain,
I set by the stream.
Heaven blazing in my head
I dreamt a monstrous dream.
Something came up out of the sea
Swept through the land of the rich and the free……(……..)
…….the streets are broad,
All must yield to the avenging God.
The world is old, the world is grey.
Lessons of life can’t be learned in a day
I watch and wait
And I listen while I stand
To the music that comes from
A far better land.
This song may be one of the best things that Mr Dylan has ever written.
There are many gems in this album set and very little dross and hearing all of these songs together helps the listener to better identify the key concerns of Dylan’s writing. They are best exemplified in the alternate version of “Ain’t Talkin’” which in its developed form originally appeared on “Modern Times”. The narrator has begun a journey on a difficult road, and whilst passing through a “mystic garden” he has been attacked from behind. Now he pledges to continue on his journey but in quiet and contemplation.
“They say prayer has the power to help
So, pray for me, mother
In the human heart, an evil spirit can dwell.
I’m trying to love my neighbour
And do good unto others
But, oh mother, things aren’t going well……”
The label “Bootleg” is, of course, something of a misnomer. Aside from the fact that this is authorised by the artist, the sound quality is exceedingly good. A great example of this is the version of “Most of the Time” which is track 2 on Disc 1. It lacks the atmospherics of the Daniel Lanois’ produced version but carries it with an in-your-face pressure with Dylan on vocals, harmonica and guitar which is extraordinarily intense.
“Dignity” is a song that people have said that Dylan under-rated and should have included on the original album. We can conject about those things forever, but we must admit also that if it had been included then the studio album, conceptually, would have been a different animal.
Amongst the dictionary definitions of “Dignity”, the word/noun is this
1. the state or quality of being worthy of honour or respect.
and this seems to be very much what Dylan had in mind.
“Somebody got murdered on New Year’s Eve
Somebody said dignity was the last* to leave”
(*”first rather than last on other versions)
but also, it seems it is a quality of godliness and perhaps even of God himself:
“Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed
Dignity never been photographed”
but the search for understanding godliness is for Dylan a gamble and a struggle and something that is hard to interpret and find:
“I went into the red, went into the black
Into the valley of dry bone dreams”
(in the finished version but not in the version on disc 1 or 2)
“Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn’t any difference to me”
“So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity”
(in the finished version but not in the version on disc 1 or disc 2)
In the early eighties, Dylan was preaching, and some would say he was preaching over-confidently. Now, he gives the air of a man who has stumbled and is battling is way through a kind of desert land. His writing still echoes the Scriptures, but these are much more his own personal reflections and battles for understanding. He “Ain’t Talking” indeed,
The piano solo of this version has the air of a real demo, it almost seems like Dylan abandons it abruptly at the end.
The song “Someday Baby” reveals that the narrator is not comfortable or sure who he can trust and who are helpful parts of his desire for growth as a person. The lyrics here are interesting for what they don’t include in the version on “Modern Times”:
“You made me eat a ton of dust,
You’re potentially dangerous and not worthy of trust
Someday, baby, you ain’t going to worry po’ me anymore”
“Little by little, bit by bit
Everyday I’m becoming more of a hypocrite”
“That’s alright, to you I turn the other cheek,
Someday, baby, you ain’t going to worry po’ me anymore”
That desire to discern what God might be saying is deep but frightening, as revealed in “Girl from the Red River Shore”
“Some of us scare ourselves in the dark,
To be where the angels fly.”
Mr Dylan finds himself inexorably drawn to the Messiah as pictured in Isaiah 53:
“Now I heard of a guy who lived a long time ago
A man full of sorrow and strife
That if someone around him died and was dead
He knew how to bring him on back to life
Well I don’t know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing anymore”
In other moments, as in Tell ol’ Bill, the narrators issues seem remarkably different:
“The heavens have never seemed so near”
“All my doubts and fears have gone at last”
Many of the songs here are vital alternate versions, for example, the recording of “Born in Time” which originally appeared on the badly produced “Under the Red Sky”. Here the narrator seeks to evoke memories and remain constant:
“”In the foggy web of destiny,
you’re still so deep inside of me”
Elsewhere, he battles with his own sinfulness of and that of all mankind:
“Broken vows.[….] broken hands on broken ploughs”
Ironically, the “broken hands on broken ploughs” notion echoes with a song right back on his first album, where he was going to keep his “hand on that plough… hold on”
Everything has gone wrong and mankind is broken in every way:
“Broken idols, broken heroes”
John Calvin would have called it total depravity.
The notion continues in the following song, “Dreamin’ of You”:
“The light in this place is really bad,
Like being at the bottom of a stream”
However, there is still hope but it is not clear who it is for:
“Somewhere dawn is breaking
Light is streaking ‘cross the floor
Church bells are ringing
I wonder who they’re ringing for”
Like many times before perhaps Bob ponders on the notion that many are called but few are chosen.
He, however, echoes the hope of the man, Job, history’s greatest sufferer:
I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God
(The Old Testament, The book of Job 19:25-26}
As he says:
“Even if the flesh falls off my face
It won’t matter, long as you’re there”
The fact that this is not an album and that the songs don’t flow in a conceptual or developmental sequence and progression is seen in “Huck’s Tune”. The lyrics here are closer to those in “Someday Baby” where the narrator of the song finds that his female preoccupation is leading him away from those things which he wishes to be central to his life.
“The game’s gotten old
The deck’s gone cold
I’m gonna have to put you down for a while”
Sometimes being up close and personal, like in this crisis does us no good at all.
This is also seen in this delightful stanza, something perhaps which is a delightful rejoinder which might be used as an antidote for those who hated Dylan’s jolly “Christmas in the Heart” album:
“All the merry little elves
Can go hang themselves
My faith is as cold as can be”
But even in hard times, there are things to treasure:
Makes my heart rejoice
Play me the wild song of the wind
I found hopeless love
In the room above
When the sun and the weather were mild”
I have talked elsewhere about how the songs on “Modern Times” remind me of the journey of Christian in John Bunyan’s classic allegory “Pilgrim’s Progress”. The aforementioned outtake from those sessions, “Marchin’ to the City” is certainly in that mode:
“”I been hit too hard,
Seen too much,
Nothing can heal me now
But your touch”
Perhaps he even evokes his Holy Slow Train imagery which he has used everywhere from the sleeve of “Highway 61 Revisited” to “Things Have Changed”:
“The train keeps rollin’
All night long.”
The first disc rounds out with a live version of “High water (for Charley Patton)” which ironically given the loose nature of this collections, manages to evoke many of the main themes of the first disc:
“I’m preachin’ the Word of God
I’m puttin’ out your eyes”
Keeping away from the women
I’m givin’ ’em lots of room
and evokes some words for these authoritarian times where liberties are in danger:
Says, “You’re dancin’ with whom they tell you to
Or you don’t dance at all”
And so, the would-be man of God alternates between being a preacher and behaving like the Philistines torturing the Hebrew judge, Samson. Like Samson, the narrator of these songs knows a lot about what it is to be undone by his love for a woman.
An interview of a few years ago had Dylan naming two of the films that influenced him most as “King of Kings” and Samson and Delilah> He sure sounds like a man trapped between those two scripts on the first disc of Tell Tale Signs.
If you bought the 2-or 3-disc set, then you found that disc 2 opened with another version of “Mississippi”. This is one is driven by a heavy double bass line and a great guitar solo.
Second up is a Robert Johnson cover with great guitar picking from Dylan. Again, it is a tale of an unfaithful woman – “32-20 Blues”.
Next is one of those songs that those who think they can improve on the tracklist of a finished album would argue should have been included and not let to eventually appear on the Bootleg Series. “Series of Dreams” is a great song and finds our man puzzled and recalling his night-time visions but even here where everything is surreal one thing remains obvious:
“The cards are no good that you are holding,
unless they are from another world”
The title of “God Knows” may sound profane but where those who usually use the phrase take it to mean that no-one knows, our narrator is comforted by the fact that his maker understands:
“It was supposed to last a season,
But it was so strong for so long,
God knows there’s a purpose”
That old slow train is perhaps coming to the end of its journey in “Can’t Escape from You”
Oh, the evening train is rolling
All along the homeward way
All my hopes are over the horizon
All my dreams have gone astray
The hillside darkly shaded
Stars fall from above
All the joys of earth have faded
This final couplet echoes the opening of the sixth seal in one of the books that Dylan seems most preoccupied with The Revelation of God to John
The whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
(Chapter 6 verses 12-17)
But even here as these dreadful things precede the beautiful future, he feels betrayed by his companion:
“In the far off sweet forever
The sunshine breaking through
We should have walked together
I can’t escape from you”
Track 6 is a guitar and bass version of “Dignity”. Here, Dylan seems to have endless verses and is not sure what to include and what not to as he works towards a polished version. Seeking Dignity is that which separates those who are wise and those who are not. The wise look for it in a “Blade of grass” and through “painted glass” (presumably an image of a place of worship), The foolish “Don Juan and Don Miguel” are “standing outside the gates of hell” and have “nothing to say, nothing to tell about dignity”. Our narrator is searching “high and searching low” for this elusive quality which like his Maker has “got no starting, no beginning, no middle, no end”. But is even this elusive quality trustworthy? It is like “a woman who is spoiled… by snakes that are coiled”. Sometimes Satan comes as a Man of Peace, you might say.
And then a live version of “Ring Them Bells”. It is time for warning bells and bells of message to be rung. “The Bride” is running backwards and there is a continuity here with an earlier song where the Groom was still waiting at the Altar. We are living in complicated times where the distance between right and wrong is disappearing. The bells are being rung for “the chosen few” who will gain salvation and be used by God as agents of judgement.
The aforementioned “Cocaine Blues” is up next and is then followed by an alternate version of “Ain’t Talkin'”. Our narrator was on a journey “through the mystic garden” when “someone hit me from behind”. He needs to find a “doctor in this town” perhaps the same one he was seeking in “Shot of Love”. Fortunately, he is outside of the gates of wrath but in an echo of Shakespeare’s the Porter in Macbeth, he is in danger of leading others or himself “down the primrose path” which according to that porter leads to the everlasting bonfire…
The songs on this second disc are much more eclectic than those on the first. A beautiful live version of “The Girl on the Greenbriar Shore” which, yes, you guessed, is another song of betrayed love. Dylan is at his most hoarse on the next live track that follows – “Lonesome Day Blues”. The narrator again is one of the great number of the deserted and comfortless:
“Well, my pa he died and left me, my brother got killed in the war
Well, my pa he died and left me, my brother got killed in the war
My sister, she ran off and got married
Never was heard of anymore”
He is seeking comfort, but he is not sure that there is genuinely any at all:
“Last night the wind was whisperin’,
I was trying to make out what it was
Last night the wind was whisperin’ somethin’—
I was trying to make out what it was I tell myself something’s comin’
But it never does”
The next pair of songs are a couple of covers. There is “Miss the Mississippi”, a Bill Halley, song which is an interesting counterpoint to all of the regret about staying “in Mississippi just a day too long” which has been going on. And there is “the Lonesome River” which is a duet with Ralph Stanley. This, for my money, is the standout of these two. Bob remarked at the time how great an honour he counted it to work with Mr Stanley and it would have been nice to have a whole album of material like this. Even in this song, which was written by Ralph and Carter Stanley, there are hints of the things which were major preoccupations in Bob’s own songwriting in the period covered by this box set:
“I sat here alone,
On the banks of the river….
I can hear a voice call from
out there in the darkness”
I sit on the shore to grieve and to cry
The woman I love she left me this morning
With no-one to love or to kiss me goodnight”
Most critics have understandably concluded that the aforementioned “Cross the Green Mountain” is about the American Civil War. Understandable because it was included in the film, “Gods and Generals” which has that theme and the video that goes with the song cuts in footage from the film. Also, Dylan details his interest in that war in his autobiographical volume “Chronicles”. However, close examination of the lyrics of this song show that the main preoccupation of most of its lyrics is the apocalypse, the book of Revelation and the end-times.
Indeed, the only reference to an actual civil war in Dylan’s recorded output is from this era, the Love and Theft album, in the song “Bye and Bye”
“Well, I’m gonna baptize you in fire so you can sin no more
I’m gonna establish my rule through civil war”
(interestingly whilst the recorded version has this couplet, the version on bobdylan.com omits the first line, perhaps by accident)
This idea (in “Bye and Bye”) seems to me to me to similar to that found in the Epistles of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament where he talks about the ongoing battle between the old man and the new creation in Christ which has been brought out by the Holy Spirit and which provokes a battle between right and wrong. This can be specifically seen in the Letter to the Romans:
…I do what I do not want to do… So, I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am!
(Chapter 7 versus 20-24 edited)
The obvious themes of the song are the future life in heaven, the beast who comes up out of the sea in the Book of Revelation and the rising up to meet the Messiah who comes on the clouds of heaven (“I’m ten miles outside the city and I’m lifted away
In an ancient light that is not of day”).
The three-album set is the one that fewest people have heard. The 3-cd deluxe edition was marketed at 6 times the price of the regular set and the individual tracks have never been made available for download. Nevertheless, the deluxe set quickly sold out and where it can be found now sells for astonishing prices.
The third disc is the least significant of the set but still contains some great music which we will take an overview of.
The disc is top-and-tailed with traditional folk songs which were recorded around the “Good as I Been to You” and “World Gone Wrong” period of 1992-1993. They are both in the spirit and feel of those sessions with “Mary and the Soldier” perhaps edging “Duncan and Brady” in the charm stakes but narrowly.
Between them are 10 Dylan compositions – nothing new – 6 alternate versions of tracks which have featured on earlier albums, 3 live recording of songs from the period and 1 alternate version of a song which first saw the light of day on the more widely available discs of this set.
The live version of Cold Irons Bound which features here is relatively faithful to the studio version and another travelling song from “Time Out of Mind” which features our narrator just twenty miles from his destination but finds himself once more in difficulties.
He struggles to identify his situation fully and successfully, amidst the confusion:
“I’m beginning to hear voices and there’s no one around”
And once again the dilemma is between his spiritual devotion and his earthly loves:
“I went to church on Sunday and she passed by
My love for her is taking such a long time to die”
He is surrounded by walls but are they blocking him from his destination or keeping him from looking back:
The walls of pride are high and wide
Can’t see over to the other side….
….you can’t see in and it’s hard lookin’ out
Meanwhile, he has bowed the knee but to what or to whom:
“Looking at you and I’m on my bended knee
You have no idea what you do to me”
Will our hero reach his destination…?
As we move along, we meet the third and final version of “Mississippi” which again emphasises how hard Mr Dylan worked to get this song right before releasing it on “Love and Theft”. The opening lines here are very different from those published on the official website:
“I’m standing in the shadows
With an aching heart.
I’m looking at the world tearing itself apart”
In many ways this makes the setting of the song clearer, we still have “the devil in the alley” but all this is happening in a fallen world which is the normal order of things now. As a song which originated in the “Time Out of Mind” sessions, it has a travelling theme. The narrator got to this troubled place by following a “star” and “crossing the river” – both of which are biblical images. But now although everyone is going somewhere and are in mid-journey only “God knows where” and to the watching eye it seems nothing is advancing: – “I’m still here and you’re still there”.
A percussion and drum led version of “Most of the Time” is next. This idea of building a song on its natural rhythm was obviously part of the idea that Dylan and Lanois were experimenting in as seen in this version of this heartbroken ballad and songs like a “Series of Dreams”. Lyrically, this is faithful to the version on the “Oh Mercy” album.
The complexity here is found in the life of a man trying to push a memory to the back of his mind and finding:
“I can keep both feet on the ground
I can follow the path, I can read the signs
Stay right with it when the road unwinds”
until that memory (or group of memories) is back at the forefront. The idea of following a disciplined path and sticking with a road that is going somewhere are very much ideas rooted in the Scriptures.
“Ring Them Bells” here is a crystal cleat piano outtake from the Oh Mercy sessions. Once more the lyrics here are pretty much with what you are familiar with. In the biblical image, the four winds blow out from heaven and it is from there that St Peter is being asked to ring the bells of warning and announcement. Again, here, as most would expect there is a profound link between the Scriptures of the Old Testament and the New Testament. The bells announce that “God is one” in the spirit of Deuteronomy and the messengers – Martha, St. Peter, and St. Catherine – are New Testament characters and Christian martyrs. The phrase, “The lilies that bloom” carries an echo of the words the Psalmist, Solomon, and Jesus.
Next, we have a live version of “Things Have Changed” which is a song that Bob favoured in his live shows for the longest time.
This song which featured on compilations but not on a regular Dylan album is riddled with the metaphors that we have been discussing and are such a mainstream of his songwriting of this era:
I’m looking up into the sapphire-tinted skies
I’m well dressed, waiting on the last train
I’ve been walking forty miles of bad road
If the Bible is right, the world will explode
Gonna get low down, gonna fly high
All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie
All the signs are that this song grew out of the same fountain of songwriting ideas as “Time Out of Mind” and the albums that followed that gained songs from that period. The sky is red, the stars are to fall. There is a train coming which will come at the end of all things. We are hearing our narrator tell of the troubles and bad pathways and choices he has struggled with. His hope is that the spiritual writings he takes to be inspired are true and that the emptiness of this world is not all that there is and that at some point, he will leave that emptiness and decadence and ascend into the skies to be part of a new world that is promised. The continuity between these themes and the things that our songwriter has been obsessed with now for more than forty years is quite staggering.
“Red River Shore” and “Born in Time” reappear next. The accordion-driven Red River Shore differs very little from the version of the lyrics on the bobdylan.com website. Except for the occasional word, the major difference is the reference to the sun going down on the narrator a long time ago and needs “to pull back from the door” rather than it “doesn’t seem to shine anymore”. The idea of the “sun” rising or shing on the righteous is another Biblical notion and one which the early Church fathers were quick to press as an image of the Son of God in the post-New Testament period:
But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.
See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”
(The Old Testament, Malachi 4:2-6)
This passage is the last words in the English Old Testament and as far as Jesus was concerned were partially fulfilled when John the Baptist came in the role of Elijah (The Gospel of Mark, Chapter 9:11-13). It is interesting that our narrator in missing the shining of the sun – perhaps the absence of God’s blessing or alternatively pulling back from the door. If our narrator is also the songwriter there is no question that is approach to expressing his faith changed dramatically at some point in his life. Either or neither of these notions could be present.
This unpredictability is echoed in the version of “Born in Time” that is found here too:
“Just when I thought you were gone
You came back”
Each version of the song hangs a wonderful notion of the nature of truth, revealed and broken:
“Truer words have not been spoken –
A live version of “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” comes next. It is obviously audience-recorded and therefore a little rougher than most pieces here, but it’s lyrical content makes it important that it is included here:
“The air is getting hotter.
There’s a rumbling in the skies”
These opening lines set the apocalyptic time-setting and urgency of the song – despites the vocalist’s laconic delivery.
Once again, the narrator is pre-occupied with whatever happened to him in the locality of the Mississippi River, although this time it is the people of Missouri that hindered him:
When I was in Missouri
They would not let me be
I had to leave there in a hurry
I only saw what they let me see
The tension of the end-times brings out a line that has echoes with both the Old Testament and the New Testament:
“Now you can seal up the book – you don’t have to write anymore”
But you, Daniel, roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge.”
(The Prophecy of Daniel Chapter 12 verse 4)
Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near. Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy.”
(The Revelation to John Chapter 22, verses 10-11)
Meanwhile, the author drifts back into his favourite judgement day metaphor:
“People at the station, waiting for the train.”
Marchin’ to the City” is another song that Mr Dylan obviously worked hard, if unsuccessfully, on trying to get ready for inclusion in the “Time Out of Mind” – its travelling theme fits so well into that record’s imagery. Here, it is driven by drums and the vocals emphasise how much the narrator is limited by life in this world:
“I’ve been chained to the earth,
Like a silent slave,
I’ve been trying to break free…”
But again, there is more going on here than simply a desire for the golden shore beyond this world. The narrator’s heart is broken, and he has been betrayed:
“I was hoping to my soul,
that we’d never part.”
His decision to march to the city of God has been fuelled by this betrayal.
The last Dylan composition on the album is another version of “Can’t Wait”, set to a particularly sombre musical tone led by the organ. Again, the thoughtful nature of the vocalist’s tone is belied by the urgency of his words. It’s unclear when he says:
“It’s got to end,
everything about it feels wrong”
whether he is speaking of the relationship or the world itself and the current age.
The final song, “Mary and the Soldier” is a traditional folk song which Dylan is most likely to know from the recordings and performances of Paul Brady, who he has commended in the past. It’s inclusion here is important. After so many songs of broken relationships, broken societies and betrayals, we finally have the story of Mary whose desire to marry a soldier means that she is willing to leave the peace of the world of her parents’ behind and follow her soldier love into battle. Dylan’s compositions carry no such sense of that emotional faithfulness from those who he has pinned his hopes upon.
“Tell Tale Signs” is not an album in the conventional sense. These songs weren’t recorded to sit together like this but in putting this collection of songs together, the compilers have done us and even Mr Dylan a wonderful service.
As we sit and listen and ponder over the wide stretch and horizons covered by this boxset, we see huge themes rolling out before our eyes. The core of the album is about betrayal – the narrator is betrayed time and time again, but we also get a sense of the writer’s own difficulty and struggles in being faithful. Put there is more to these songs than that. Despite all these earthly distractions, the central figure has developed a determination to follow God to a far better place. This passionate fervour is expressed in the language (as always in the recordings that Mr Dylan has made in the last 40-plus years) in the language of both the New Testament and the Old Testament. It is in the Scriptures that he has found the route to God and the confidence to continue through his struggles.
On his new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, there is every sign that he is the one who is responsible for his own struggles and that God continues to be his only hope of deliverance:
“I prayed to the cross
and I kissed the girls
and I crossed the Rubicon.”