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Man of Sorrow and Strife

By John Murphy

Posted 11/11/08 at 11:56 PM

If, in his early days, middle-class Minnesotan Bob Zimmerman playacted the persona of hobo troubador Bob Dylan, he has since evolved into the genuine article, an authentic Elder Statesman of American music. Dylan’s late-career flowering, which began with 1997’s death-haunted, Time Out of Mind (though 1989’s Oh Mercy had its share of fine tunes) has been beautiful to behold.

His recent renaissance is revisited in Tell Tale Signs, a collection of odds-and-ends, alternative takes, unreleased songs, and live material from the Oh Mercy days up through 2006’s Modern Times. The rambling, shambling tunes gathered here showcase Dylan’s immersion in the blues and folk tradition. He’s finding inspiration by going back-to-basics, plumbing roots music for its moody sense of God-hunted world-weariness. In ‘Dreamin’ of You,’ Dylan croaks “I’m hiding my faith in the rain” and

Somewhere dawn is breaking
Light is streaking across the floor
Church bells are ringing
I wonder who they’re ringing for

Not for the withered, ragged Dylan, whose new mantle is the wandering stranger “nobody sees” with a head full of dusty and desolate memories, Shakespeare’s poor fellow “crawling between Earth and Heaven.” The beautiful and melancholic “Red River Shore” makes a subtle allusion to Christ:

Now, I’ve heard of a guy who lived a long time ago
A man full of sorrow and strife
Whenever someone around him died and was dead
He knew how to bring ‘em on back to life

The role of Man of Sorrows mixed with Old Man Time suits Dylan well. His ravaged, raspy voice, with its nasal twang, can be distracting or poignant depending on the listener, but it is certainly distinctive, and sounds exactly like a man who could claim:

Well, the devil’s in the alley, mule’s in the stall
Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all…
I’m drowning in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my is not weary, it’s light and it’s free
I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who sailed with me