Part of the exhilaration of Dylan's recent work, especially his most recent trio of releases (Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times), has been pinpointing the phrases and licks Dylan has masterfully cribbed and co-opted. The liner notes of Tell Tale Signs will help all listeners connect the dots, from Hank Williams to Blind Willie McTell, from Chess and Excello Records to Dock Boggs.
Tracking Dylan from 1989 to 2006, this two-disc set helps contextualize what started off as an uneven musical period--but of course, Dylan's lyrical prowess remained second-to-none. It's telling that the set's true gems are two unreleased tracks: The waltzing "Red River Shore" from the Time Out of Mind sessions powerfully addresses unrequited love, while the dancehall anguish of 2005's "Can't Escape From You" perfectly captures obsession.
As with most of the recent Dylan miscellany, the live tracks are wonders--notably the vicious, driving 2003 performance of "High Water (For Charley Patton)," while a raucous crowd and perfect use of restraint and excess are captured on a 1993 performance of "Ring Them Bells" from the New York Supper Club. The line between thievery and genius seems thin, but a true maverick proves there is no line. Only Dylan could manage to encapsulate decades of popular music into something that is both brazenly original and shrewdly derivative.