It’s a little hard for those of us who weren’t there to understand the critical reaction to Bob Dylan’s 10th album, 1970‘s Self Portrait. First, let’s pause a moment to reflect on the fact that there was a 10th album already at that point, only eight years and a few months after Dylan released his self-titled debut.
It was a busy time: he wrote and performed, culture was churning ahead and changing at what was then an unprecedented pace, and some people in the music world thought of him as a sort of leader of a new consciousness. Into this world he released an album called Self Portrait. One imagines seeing that title and expecting something deeper, heavier, some kind of reckoning with what has gone before. But what the listening public got instead was a mish-mash– a few original songs, a few live cuts, lots of covers, and a generally disjointed sound. It seemed slapdash. And it caused Greil Marcus, Dylan’s best critic, to begin his review of the double album in Rolling Stone with the words “What is this shit?”
The latest entry in Dylan’s Bootleg Series provides a new opportunity to evaluate the music of this period. Calling this volume Another Self Portrait, including liner notes by Marcus, and offering up a new painting by Bob Dylan as a cover image, is a sly and gutsy move. By most accounts, Dylan was hurt by the initial savaging of Self Portrait, and rushed out its 1970 follow-up, New Morning, to put the album in the rearview as quickly as possible. Later, there was a sense that he wanted to scrub it from his own history. In interviews, Dylan sometimes suggested that Self Portrait was deliberately bad, thrown together as a way to confuse his audience or provoke the media into moving on to someone else so that he could have more privacy in raising his family.
Though we’ll never know exactly what he was thinking, the idea of Dylan making a poor album on purpose never made sense. He worked with too many top-shelf musicians that he cared about, and had friends and colleagues investing too much time, to make something that would embarrass them. It seems more likely that the “intentionally bad” storyline was a defense mechanism for a mysterious artist who did, after all, have a pretty hefty ego and was deeply aware of his own talent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that Self Portrait was a strange and all-over-the-place album because, for one reason or another, that’s the kind of album Dylan wanted to make at that time.
Another Self Portrait complicates the narrative. Considering the strength of these alternate takes, demos, stripped-down mixes, and live cuts, it’s a little hard to believe that these were the cast-offs from what was perceived to be an artist’s worst album. Many of the songs come from the sessions for New Morning, but there were no clear lines between Self Portrait and New Morning sessions in 1969 and 1970. Akin to Neil Young’s later method, Dylan at the end of the 60s seems to have been about recording songs first, lots of them, and figuring out how they fit into an album later.
There was a marked shift in Dylan’s music at the end of the 60s. “For sure my lyrics had struck nerves that had never been struck before,” he wrote of this time in Chronicles Volume One, “but if my songs were just about the words, then what was Duane Eddy, the great rock’n’roll guitarist, doing recording an album full of instrumental melodies of my songs? Musicians have always known that my songs were more than just words, but most people are not musicians.” This passage provides a good framework for understanding the music here. After the word-drunk work he’d created in the mid-60s, and following the mysterious motorcycle accident that laid him up in 1966, his music became simpler and more tuneful. Drawing on his longstanding interest in country music, standards, and any well-constructed song, he began to write and perform songs that felt universal.
That is where the deep and immense pleasure of this set resides: hearing melodies– some new, some old, some borrowed– performed by a distinctive singer at the height of his powers. The two discs are arranged for flow, with songs roughly split along two lines. Disc one is mostly songs recorded prior to Self Portrait, and is heavy on alternate versions of Dylan tunes and renditions of traditional songs. This “Time Passes Slowly” and the demo of “Went to See the Gypsy” don’t supplant better-known takes, but they’re different enough in feel and arrangement to make the songs sound new. Other differences, like the alternate version of Nashville Skyline’s “I Threw It All Away”, are more subtle, and the appeal is in hearing the song tinted by a new setting.
But the real revelations on the first disc are the unreleased versions of songs from the public domain. It’s now accepted that Dylan returned to relevance late in his career when he released two albums of traditional songs, 1992‘s Good as I Been to You and 1993‘s World Gone Wrong. The idea being that, in times of trouble, when he’s not sure where else to go, the songs Dylan grew up with and studied were there for him. The versions here of “Railroad Bill”, “Little Sadie”, “Pretty Saro”, and the especially powerful “This Evening So Soon” are brilliant showcases of his ability to inhabit old material and make it his own. And they benefit from the generally spare and acoustic sound. Dylan started his career singing traditional folk songs, but his understanding of them eight years later was far richer.
The second disc is heavier on versions of Dylan originals, with roughly equal smatterings of alternate takes from Self Portrait, New Morning, and Nashville Skyline and live cuts from Dylan and the Band’s 1969 Isle of Wight Festival performance. Some of the differences in these versions are striking. The radically altered take of “If Not For You” is performed by Dylan with piano and violin, making the song sound even more tender and vulnerable. There’s an alternate version of the funky Nashville Skyline trifle “Country Pie” that, when it breaks down, shows just how in-the-pocket his session pros were when playing live in the studio. There’s a version of “New Morning” with a shimmering horn section, giving it an even more buoyant and joyous cast. “Wigwam”, the instrumental that was given a bombastic treatment on the Self Portrait album, is heard without orchestration, revealing it as an effortlessly tuneful cowboy tune (the countrypolitan near-instrumental “All the Tired Horses” is heard in a similarly lean version).
Most of the music is heard in versions with minimal instrumentation: Dylan’s guitar, a second guitar adding fills, sometimes piano. Which makes the set oddly cohesive and album-like, ironically more so than the Self Portrait album itself. The outliers in this regard were also some of the stranger inclusions on the original album– the in-concert tracks with the Band. Given that neither Dylan nor the Band played live during this period, the fact that they came together for a massive festival was surely big news, so the set is obviously of historical importance. That is doubly true since by this time the recordings they made together in Woodstock were leaking out on bootlegs like The Great White Wonder, so the desire for Dylan/Band collaborations was high.
But plucking random numbers from that Isle of Wight set didn’t make much sense on the original album, and it doesn’t make much sense on Another Self Portrait either. The deluxe version of this set includes a disc with the full set, which is welcome– it has a ragtag charm, Dylan mostly sings in his Nashville Skyline voice, and the song selection is ace. But there’s still a weird distance to it all, a lack of intensity that is hard to put a finger on, with laid back versions of familiar tunes that don’t really probe for any new meanings.
The deluxe version also includes a remastered version of the Self Portrait album proper. Returning to it, it’s hard for those of us a generation or two younger to understand the reaction to it not because it paled in comparison to the greatness that came before, because it obviously did. If you’ve spent any time listening to Bob Dylan’s 1960s catalog, you are still trying to wrap your head around the thought that one person wrote the 56 songs on Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline between 1965 and 1969. Self Portrait, next to these records, in that moment, must have seemed like a joke. But later generations hear it differently. We’ve discovered Self Portrait in the used bins, torrent downloads, and streaming services alongside records like Street Legal, Saved, Empire Burlesque, Down in the Groove, and Under the Red Sky. And in this broader context, it sounds quite good, another weird and sloppy record from a guy who released a lot of them. And hearing it again with all the fantastic music that surrounded it, music that further cements Dylan’s Bootleg Series as one of the most important archival projects in modern pop history, it remains a beguiling artifact.