One of the barometers of genuine music-freakdom is how obsessively one takes the standard of completism: If you’re a true fan of an artist, you want to hear not just the officially released stuff, but the outtakes, the odds and sods, the castoffs, the marginalia. You want it all.
Artists themselves, too, play a role in this relationship, obviously — they’re the ones who, to the extent that they legally control the release of anything anymore, determine what from their vault they want us to hear. Understandably, they’re a little touchy about fans hearing unfinished demos or, in some cases, material that is manifestly inferior.
The proper maintenance of archives requires judicious care and cultivation, and some artists are better, more attentive, at it than others. Neil Young is a good example. So is Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan, to no one’s surprise, may be the master, though. His ongoing “Bootleg Series” has been a treasure since it began in the early ‘90s. Many critics have said it because it’s true: What Dylan held back is better than what most artists release. The series’ live material, too, is an important document of an era of unparalleled artistic ferment.
The latest in the series, “Tell Tale Signs,” continues the hot streak, capturing many compelling, if temporarily scrapped, moments of a rejuvenated Dylan’s “Time out of Mind” and “Modern Times” albums, plus the not-to-be-overlooked “Oh Mercy” LP. He wisely decided not to treat the fallow “Under the Red Sky” and “Good as I Been to You” period, but, mysteriously, also ignored the “Love and Theft” sessions — my favorite of late Dylan. Maybe next time.
My larger point, though, is that Dylan is treating his art with the totality of perspective it deserves.
Unlike, say, my favorite band, the Rolling Stones, who rather candidly have said they’ll leave the work of clerking through their cutting-room material to … somebody else … after they’re dead. The astonishingly ill-conceived “Rarities” album — on which very few songs were genuinely “rare” and whose liner notes were riddled with errors — is a prime example of how not to mind the store.
Kudos, again, Bob.