A couple of reviews of Bob Dylan's Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume 8 have praised the directness of the demos and alternate arrangements of several songs that producer Daniel Lanois subjected to the Lanois Treatment on 1989's Oh Mercy and 1997's Time Out of Mind. While I've never balked at revisionism, this is unfair. Were I to pitch an Idolator column, I'd title it "Most Overrated Comebacks by Major Artists," and TOOM would head the list. Although this Dylanphile listened to it as much as any other product in 1997, admiring especially how that croak harmonized with Augie Meyers' organ, I thought the album itself played like a collection of sketches of a mood, and a mood the artist could not limn beyond broad strokes. Eleven years later, I still can't hum or mention a single memorable line in "Can't Wait," "Til I Fell In Love With You," and "Million Miles" (the titles should have been dead giveaways, or DOA's). Lanois' voodoo consists of conjuring heavy drapes he can drop over songs of questionable merit and poorly conceived intent, and he exacerbates the problem by ordering several guitarists and keyboardists to search for the melody line that Dylan himself hasn't written; Time Out of Mind is Dylan's version of a late eighties Bryan Ferry record.
Oh Mercy's another story. I'm sentimental about the record, admittedly. I bought it after the four old farts and wannabe old fart in the Traveling Wilburys convinced me with their album that their respective back catalogues were worth the exploration. My local library owned the OM cassette, and I listened to it obsessively in the spring of 1990, getting off on how Dylan's aged sneer jabbed at Lanois' atmospherics; it was a draw, but I loved both, and naive me preferred Dylan's voice to his lyrics even then. But Dylan was on some kind of songwriting roll. As Chronicles confirms, he felt sufficiently jazzed by the New Orleans setting in which he recorded the album to bolster his flagging self-confidence. I'll take "Man in the Long Black Coat," "Where Teardrops Fall," "What Good Am I," "Shooting Star," "Most of the Time," and "What Was It You Wanted" over the TOOM deadweight I cited above. As much as I adore Blood On The Tracks, I also have a lot of time for Dylan albums which reflect the artist's confused miscellany of influences and moods: Blonde on Blonde, New Morning, Empire Burlesque. For all its craft, TOOM sounds like Dylan on a creative writing assignment: define despair. Oh Mercy's relaxed groove and we'll-try-anything-once spirit (embodied by the boneheaded "Political World" and "Disease of Conceit") suits a newly middle aged man who's just beginning to turn inward in order to confront the world.
This serves as a long preface to the song I really wanted to write about. The OM outtake "Series of Dreams" appears on Tell Tale Signs unblemished by the synths and echo -- no doubt this is how Dylan prefers it, as the outtakes of "Love & Theft"'s "Mississippi" make the original sound like New Order by comparison. I understand why Dylan didn't include "Series of Dreams" on OM: it's portentous in a way none of the other songs are; it would have been like including "Every Grain of Sand" on Knocked Out Loaded, or hell, "Blind Willie McTell" on Infidels. "Series of Dreams" does its title justice -- the demos don't. Lanois' instincts, finally, were correct. The keyboard swells that hug the sudden chord change signaled by the perfect line "Dreams where the umbrella is folded" evade common sense much like Dylan's vocals. It's the best self-written song he recorded before 2000's "Things Have Changed," only this time you can't separate the singer's authority from the production in which it's safely encased. Dylan doesn't bleat or bellow; as in all his best work, he trusts the path his lyrics trod. It's the culmination of what he attempted on 1985's Empire Burlesque (around which there's a thriving cult anyway) on tracks like "Something's Burning, Baby" -- there's something happening here, he don't know what it is, yet he's old enough to guess, with a little help from his friends, even if they wear their hair in ponytails or sport "Miami Vice" jackets.
So do me a favor and remember the possibilities in Dylan's voice, and how Lanois and Jack Frost (har har) best served him.