Dylan’s songs have always been organic, living things. Even if you have your favorites, in his mind there’s no definitive version of any of them. They continue to evolve. Understanding this is key to appreciating Dylan’s work process, not only in concert but on his most baffling recordings. Tracks seemingly tossed-off might have gone through fifty or more takes. Other gems are discarded entirely. Dylan searches for a raw and immediate feel, and he knows it when he finds it, even if his choices make no sense to anyone else. Early on, Dylan began releasing his orphaned work. The Bootleg Series began in 1991 as a fussy, curated glimpse, but as the sets have expanded (Vol. 16 has over four hours of music), they’ve become more of a clearinghouse. Even the outtakes have outtakes. The finds range from mildly curious to astonishing, and there are more than a few duds. On paper, Springtime, covering music from his Shot of Love to Empire Burlesque period, already sounds like trouble – not exactly his most beloved releases. Between those two, though, is the more favorably regarded Infidels, an album well known to Dylan fans as one, like Blood On The Tracks, that he completely reworked. Its predecessor, Shot of Love, was a curtain call to Dylan’s weird proselytizing Christianity period. Yet the Shot rehearsal tapes here reveal that Dylan was already growing bored with the conceit. Some of the set’s worst material is here (and there’s a lot of it), Dylan taking up his band’s time on bar band arrangements of “Fever” and “Sweet Caroline”. Rough. (OK, I kind of like “I Wish It Would Rain”). There is a beautiful outtake of a tune called “Angelina”, one of several tracks Dylan reworked endlessly before leaving it off the album entirely (and like other standouts here, an alternate version of the track that originally appeared on Bootleg Sessions Vols. 1-3). The Christianity period was not loved by fans, so a stung Dylan made the unusual move of hiring producers to infuse some modernity into his next two records. Infidels largely succeeded, though much was redone after Mark Knopfler had moved on, yet Arthur Baker’s slick eighties tweaks doomed Empire. In both cases, the alternates and outtakes here reveal the albums that might have been. Knopfler and Mick Taylor tear into “I & I”, and there’s a ragged version of “Clean Cut Kid” featuring Ron Wood, and a rare Willie cover. Punk band the Plugz back Dylan on the Letterman version of “Time to Kill” (though fan-favorite “Jokerman” from the same show is curiously omitted). Empire tracks are pleasantly stripped of their gloss, and earlier, formative versions of other favorites feel like encountering an old friend in a completely unexpected place. Best of all are new versions of orphaned classics “Blind Willie McTell”, “Foot of Pride”, and a stunning “New Danville Girl”, a track reworked and buried years later on the forgettable Knocked Out Loaded album. That might sound like a lot- and it is- but it makes up barely half of the music included. Let your level of interest be your guide as to how deep you want to dive into Dylan’s bottomless well.
Review by Jeff McCord