This week saw the release of the eighth of the hopefully endless Bootleg Series, a motherload of Dylaniana that would be a pretty insane discography if it stood on its own. Because it doesn’t, the Series is a mind-boggling reminder that Dylan throws out tracks that would be career-makers for just about anyone ever to set foot in a recording studio. Case in point: “Red River Shore,” a song so awesome that it could have been a perfect fit on John Wesley Harding or even Blood on the Tracks, but not, inexplicably, awesome enough to make the cut for Time Out of Mind. I’m guessing the first part of that statement explains the second: that rambling, folksy story songs are too 60s and 70s Dylan, that the wandering-man-redeemed-by-some-woman-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-who-happens-to-be-the-only-woman-who-can-or-will-ever-understand-him trope is a bit overplayed in the Dylan cannon, that attention spans are short and only die-hards can sit through seven minutes of this stuff to begin with.
Whatever. By any measure “Red River Shore” is one of the best things Dylan’s recorded over the past couple decades–the instrumentation is understated enough to seem organic and folksy rather than self-consciously anachronistic (think JWH and not Modern Times), and it’s delivered without the unintelligible rasp that’s characterized Dylan’s late-period work. This is the wistful, romantic, philosophical Dylan or yore–not the wheezing old man ogling Alisha Keyes. Or possibly it’s fossilized Alisha Keyes-ogling Dylan looking back on wistful, romantic, philosophical Dylan, with the two locked in a riveting, self-reflexive stare-down? Either way, it’s a chillingly good throwback to Dylan’s most creative years, and one of the highlights of his late-career renaissance.
There’s some other great stuff on the compilation, entitled Tell Tale Signs–a live version of “High Water,” the recording of “Mississippi” that was eventually cut from Time Out of Mind, and a few outtakes and alternative versions from 1988’s woefully underrated Oh Mercy! Worth a download if you still aren’t over I’m Not There mania–and never will be.