Bob Dylan's The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991 (Columbia; 3 CDs, 3 tapes, or 5 LPs) starts simply. In a Minnesota hotel room in 1961, the 20-year-old Dylan, sounding like one of Woody Guthrie's lost sons, sings a derivative ramblin'-gamblin' folk ballad called ''Hard Times in New York Town'' in a flat, nasal voice. But over the course of 57 more songs rare studio and live recordings, all of them previously unissued and many long considered classics among collectors of bootleg tapes the kid grows up. We hear him gain confidence as a traditional folksinger, write angry topical songs, gingerly branch out into more personal themes, discover the bracing electricity of rock & roll, take it to its neurotic brink, retreat in confusion, renew his sense of purpose, discover the Lord, and spend the past 10 or so years in an often uninspired search for the Muse.
The story has been told on records before, through the career-spanning songs on the 1985 Dylan box Biograph. But with its deluge of unheard tracks and alternate versions of old favorites, The Bootleg Series freshens the tale. To be sure, the idea of a Dylan rarity doesn't have quite the from-the-mount aura it once did, especially given his erratic output of the past decade. The Bootleg Series, though, makes one appreciate this strange, charismatic monument all over again. Gems tumble out one after another, and before you know it you barely remember Dylan's puzzling, in-a-fog cameo at this year's Grammys.
As you might expect, many of the album's stunners come from the early '60s: self-righteous protest songs (''Who Killed Davey Moore?'' and ''When the Ship Comes In''), frisky white-boy blues (''Quit Your Low Down Ways''), hootenanny humor (''Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues''). What you may not expect is the high quality of the outtakes from his controversial 1979-83 born-again phase. On bristling tracks such as the pop-gospel ''You Changed My Life'' and the raunchy blues ''Need a Woman,'' both from 1981, Dylan holds desperately onto his faded genius with both hands and succeeds, despite a voice that's clearly the worse for wear. The same goes for the Infidels outtake ''Blind Willie McTell,'' a spare, apocalyptic chronicle of a decaying planet that reveals Dylan's continued flashes of insight, if not his decision-making skills regarding his own records.
The throbbing heart of this edition of The Bootleg Series (future volumes are planned) is its middle third. Spanning 1963 to '74, its 20 songs vividly return you to a time when Dylan walked it like he talked it: cool, distanced, sardonic, yet charged with seething emotions. The gentle acoustic balladeer of ''Mama, You Been on My Mind'' (1964) gives way to the scathing folk rocker of ''She's Your Lover Now,'' a 1966 Blonde on Blonde outtake that captures Dylan in all his snide glory. Finally, there are alternate versions of songs from the 1974 Blood on the Tracks sessions. On that album both ''Idiot Wind'' and ''Tangled Up in Blue'' are bitter and angry recorded bile. In these earlier takes the songs about failed relationships sound sad and resigned, yet they're every bit as powerful as the versions we already know. The results are revelatory like the bulk of The Bootleg Series itself.