Officially labeled as Vol. 8 of the rewarding "Bootleg Series," Bob Dylan's latest installment feels much more like a new album than a collection of odds 'n' sods for super-geek collectors. Culled primarily from the recording sessions for "Oh Mercy" (1989), "Time Out of Mind" (1997) and "Modern Times" (2006), the two discs include several unreleased gems, chief among them the gorgeous "Red River Shore," one of the most nakedly emotional songs the master has written. But the heart of the collection is alternate takes of album tracks such as "Dignity," "Mississippi" and "Can't Wait."
While many critics hailed the Dylan albums mentioned above as evidence of a late-career renaissance--and they certainly have moments of brilliance--overall, they've failed to capture the playful agility or the guitar fire that the 67-year-old singer and songwriter brought to the songs onstage during the same period, especially on the discs smothered in the thick, swampy bog of Daniel Lanois' productions. A few of those guitar rave-ups roar from the speakers here--including a killer live version of "High Water (For Charley Patton)"--but even more notable are the demos and alternate takes of songs that often appeared in overly mannered versions on the final albums. These find a freewheelin' Dylan reveling in the joy of his own poetry, caressing words and phrases with those charcoal-pit vocals, and playing with the range of emotions that can be revealed by changing tempos, altering grooves or, most of all, stripping down the arrangements to focus on the voice and piano or harmonica and guitar.
As on the studio albums, the inveterate role-player is often portraying what New York Times critic Jon Pareles called the "wandering, God-haunted, apocalyptic philosopher," well aware that we're all watching as he approaches the end of a long road. "My hands are cold/The end of time has just begun," he sings in some previously unheard lines from "Can't Wait." "I'm getting old/Anything can happen now to anyone." The difference is that in this setting, you can hear the smirk, if not the knowing wink of the sarcastic surrealist who devoted chunks of his autobiography to hailing the genius of Tiny Tim and the wrestler Gorgeous George.
In other words, this is Dylan having fun, letting loose on a powerful version of the Greenwich Village folkie standard "Cocaine Blues," paying homage to the early rock 'n' roll balladry he loves on "Can't Escape from You" (another unreleased find) and jamming with the legendary Ralph Stanley on "The Lonesome River." And once again, in stark contrast to so many of the giants of '60's rock, he's proving that he still is a vibrant and vital creative force loathe to rest on his laurels, even if he is just counting the minutes until the end of time.