For someone who's hailed as one of the foremost influences on today's musical landscape, Bob Dylan is still something of a divisive figure amongst musicphiles. Some are unable to get beyond his, shall we say, 'unconventional' singing voice, while some simply aren't predisposed to the whiskey-soaked, cigarette smoke-enveloped cacophonic sound that his latter day music has become. And some would just prefer to listen to Oasis release the same album over and over again.
Fair points, the lot of them. But with Dylan's latest release, Tell Tale Signs, he isn't catering to these people - and, frankly, I'd be concerned if he was. 'Tell Tale Signs' is a collection of studio outtakes and live recordings of songs that have (with the exception of a few unreleased tracks) appeared on his past four studio albums, from the period 1989 - 2006.
1989's Daniel Lanois-produced 'Oh Mercy' came at a time when Dylan was trying to rediscover his voice both figuratively and literally, after years of hard living had threatened to dull his creativity after a less than successful period in the 1980s. Lanois' production filled the musical spaces in each song with an ambient sound that echoed the album's themes of heartbreak and loss. One of the standout tracks on 'Oh Mercy' - Most of the Time - is presented here as a much more raw, stripped down guitar-and-voice song, and one can't help but wonder if this is the song that Dylan originally intended to write, a song that would easily be at home on 'Blood On The Tracks'.
Another example of the multiplicity contained within this collection is the version of Someday Baby, perhaps the best song on 2006's 'Modern Times'. The alternate version is played with a slower tempo and pushed along by a delicate guitar line, in harsh contrast with the original version. Listening to it brought the realisation that Bob Dylan is capable of producing two very different versions of the same song - and both of them are better than anything you'll hear on any album this year.