The saddest thing about this collection in my mind comes from the fact this is something the casual find might not think to look at first. This is the type of release that is usually aimed at the already established fan base of a particular artist, but in this case this is as valid a first buy as his albums are.
Dylan does not falter at all on this collection, and it shows the depth of his songwriting, making this (to my mind) as essential in his catalogue as anything else people recommend for newcommers to Dylan. The only thing added by knowing Dylan's albums before this is the amount of frustration the listener feels that he didn't put these tracks on the prospective albums they belong too. The majority of them could have been MUCH longer, with INFIDELS being a double album even, and SHOT OF LOVE would have greately benefited, making it rated higher than it is and give Dylan a critical boost when he really needed it. Dylan, for all his skills, has proven one thing with this release: the method he uses to assemble albums could stand up to some fine-tuning and work, because most of these are good enough to be released. The songs are absolutely wonderful, all of them (with maybe the single exception of Talking Negeliah Blues, which is just a 50 second guitar doodle and Suze -- not because of the song itself which is an instermentual but because the track breaks down, as does "She's Your Lover Now" which is the single most exasperating song on this record for that exact reason.) The real meat of this set is its unreleased stuff, and while some of the alternate takes are interesting just downright terrible (only one of these is REAL bad, and that's "It Takes A Lot to Laugh", while techinically good ruin the gorgeous song by playing it way to fast).
Some one said they wished this had been like The Beatles' Anthology series. I simply could not disagree more. The sad thing about The Beatles came from the fact they simply did not have that much in the vaults in terms of unreleased original compositions. Instead they had to go with all the outtakes of their songs. (A side note: 1 is average, interesting just for historians, 2 is pretty good maybe 3 & 1/2 stars, and 3 is very good.) But with Dylan, besides having a much longer career (and the fact that The Beatles were incredibely prolific, releasing two albums of material per year with singles and what not and their quality never faltered) also has so much unreleased stuff its simply amazing and these songs have priorites of outtakes of the classics. Indeed, one of the essential frustrations with Dylan (and in a much smaller sense The Beatles as well) is, as amazing as his discography is, there are songs here that simply should have been on the album (the greatest victom of this phenomena is INFIDELS which had the outtakes on this and the ones still unrealesed been included it would hold its head up high next to anything else he released).
Volume I is the true folk album of this lot. In that sense this has the most artistic cohesion because of the period of compsoition (just over 2 years) is very close chronologically and the general sound remains the same. There are some real gems here, including Hard Times, Bear Mountain, Let Me Die, Walls of Red Wing, Who Killed Davy Moor, and others. Although artisticially this is straight on, for my personal tastes there are some of these tracks that are just servicable instead of overwhelming. But that's just taste -- musically you can't touch Dylan on this one.
Volume II: There isn't quite feel of cohesion on this one as the first volume because of the amount of stylistic changes it has to cover, going from folk to folk rock to rock to Basement Tape outtakes as well as the music of New Morning and Planet Waves (that sound) and then ends with outtakes from BLOOD ON THE TRACKS. Individually all the tracks stand out, though the easily must frustrating is "She's Your Lover Now" which is an almost perfect take but breaks down after six minutes resulting in a lost verse. It should have been redone and put on BLONDE ON BLONDE. My least favorite track here is the up-tempo version of "It Takes a Lot to Laugh" off Highway 61, which simply does not have the appeal of the original. "I'll Keep It With Mine" is a particular favorite, although this is a rehearsal and it shows.
Volume III: In terms of style this is the most consistent of the three volumes, and I would argue if you cut the first three tracks which belong to the mid seventies (and so should have been on those albums) and released this as an individual album it would be hailed as a comeback for Dylan, who had a notoriusly dry and inconsitent spell during the 1980s. They would compare it to Oh Mercy! and it may have even had a better critical reputations. The cuts I would make it this if it were released as a real album would be "Every Grain", "Someone's Got a Hold", "Lord", and "When the Night" or call them bonus tracks. Not a big fan of Tell Me. "Julius and Ethel" (an Infidels outtake) would have been nice to be on here too. Oh well, I suppose. And to those who say the EMPIRE BURLESQUE version sounds like disco, go suck off. It's a good song.
All in all, one of the single most impressive collections assembled, especially since this is ALL outtake material. A lot of this would have been the major material in other people's catalogues. As Mark Prindle said, that's pretty impressive Weezer (talking about the band). There's still a lot more in his vaults, and I want more of this stuff released. Also, I'd like a full release of THE BASEMENT TAPES, with ALL known material released. There's still a large amount of the TAPES in the vault. "I'm Not There", one of my favorite Dylan compositions, is still unreleased. Get the ball rolling, release some more!
Bottom line: Get this release. If you're new, it's just as good, as valid a first buy as any of the others often cited. This should be on your top five list to buy.