The term “genius” is often bandied about like a newborn kitten. Everybody looks. But to save the power and meaning of the word, you have to use it sparingly. When the person being described as a genius has just put out one good album, or written one good novel, the word may be a bit of an overstatement. However, when the person being described has put out dozens of classic albums, each one better than the last, over the course of 40-plus years and counting, then the term genius may just be what the doctor ordered.
Bob Dylan, the self-described “song and dance man,” recently released the eighth volume of his popular Bootlegs Series, Tell Tale Signs. The Bootleg Series is a nearly annual release of outtakes, live versions, and of course the kitchen sink. This edition picks up where Volume 1-3 left off – the underrated 1989 album Oh Mercy – and brings us to his most recent, Modern Times.
The song Mississippi is represented here twice. As The Onion’s AV Club pointed out, each “sound nothing like the “official” rendition—or one another.” It is a great song, and it’s nice to know that Bob continues to try new things, be it an arrangement on an album or in concert. My personal favorite is an early version of Most of the Time, a song I first heard in high school and found immediate application in my life. The acoustic version heard here is more upbeat than the one on the album; I find it amusing that a song so melancholy in content could be originally sung with such a chipper tone.
The live tracks showcase Bob’s crack touring band from the last few years. They’ve managed to make Bob’s songs all sound good together, as though he wrote them all in one sitting. People complain that they can’t tell which song he’s playing until he gets to the chorus. To them I say, listen to the CDs if you want history. With Bob, live means NOW. Whatever he feels like playing, however he feels like playing it. Honestly, the songs aren’t all that different from what they once were; it’s just that we’re so used to hearing musicians trying to replicate songs exactly as they were played on the album that it offends our delicate ears to hear an artist, I don’t know, try something different.
To be fair, I’ve heard plenty of other musicians change things up on stage. Bob isn’t the only one. I think it’s just that, he’s Bob Dylan. Everybody knows Blowin’ in the Wind. Bob is sick of Blowin’ in the Wind. Why not let him change it and make it more interesting for everybody?
Some people use the term “genius” dismissively, as in “Okay, okay, he’s a genius. So what?” They think they know what Bob’s all about from the four songs oldies radio plays endlessly. When I put on Blonde on Blonde for my college roommate, he asked me pointedly, “Are you trying to turn me into a Bob Dylan fan?” He liked it, he just never heard it before. Same goes for The Beatles – “Yeah, yeah, The Beatles are great. Blah blah blah.” These are people who haven’t listened to the White Album in its entirety.
That Bob continues to refine his craft makes Tell Tale Signs such an enjoyable listen. As long as he doesn’t give up the chase, I’ll be there.