Monday, May 25, 2009

Bob Dylan 11: Self Portrait

They dealt with John Wesley Harding. They endured Nashville Skyline. Now, with Self Portrait, diehard Dylan fans were at the end of their collective ropes. Roughly four years after one of the greatest double albums ever issued, here was another two-record set, filled not with that thin, wild mercury music and advanced prose worthy of the Summer of Love, but rather a cross between some old folk tunes and other tracks that sat squarely in the middle of the road.
That’s not to say that what was contained within wasn’t pleasant. But whether or not you liked the smooth sound of Nashville Skyline, chances are you weren’t ready for what came next. If you haven’t been prepared, strap yourself in for this one.
Some of the tracks came from the “crooner” aftermath of Nashville Skyline, a few were included from his appearance (with The Band) at the British version of Woodstock in the Isle of Wight, and others came from further sessions from the new decade. In many cases, he recorded basic tracks, and let the producer embellish them at will and at length.
Even though it’s probably the best song in the set, “All The Tired Horses” consists of the same two lines repeated by a bunch of women over a gentle acoustic and string backing. No Dylan nowhere. “Alberta #1” is a lazy rendition of a blues song, then “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” ladles on the syrup. “Days Of 49” is a little raspier, but you’re allowed to be confused. (Oh my goodness indeed.) “Early Mornin’ Rain” is a Gordon Lightfoot song, and would have been fine if he’d written it himself. But then “In Search Of Little Sadie” loses her trail through every key imaginable, which should be proof enough he was doing it all on purpose.
“Let It Be Me” sucks the life out of the Everly Brothers song, then he pulls out the mandolins for a straight rendition of “Little Sadie” that somehow isn’t as much fun as the first side’s closer. “Woogie Boogie” is another instrumental that can’t have taken too much time to write. “Belle Isle” tries very hard to stay pretty, but “Living The Blues” is a boring Skyline refugee. The worst is yet to come: a lousy take of “Like A Rolling Stone” from the Isle of Wight, complete with flubbed words. The crowd cheers, amazingly.
“Copper Kettle” is a sweet moonshine ballad, but “Gotta Travel On” sounds too much like Elvis trying to be hip. To prove the point, “Blue Moon” sends the song back to Bing Crosby. “The Boxer” is a daring experiment, with its dueling vocals—the crooner with the raspy, not at all like Garfunkel and Garfunkel—and proof he could turn on that voice whenever he felt like it. “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo)” is his nod to the Manfred Mann hit version of his own song; too bad the Band couldn’t remember how to play it. “Take Me As I Am” ends side three with a tempting dare.
“Take A Message To Mary” relies too much on the women singing backup. In a foreboding of the 21st century, “It Hurts Me Too” is basically the old Elmore James song, but he takes full credit. “Minstrel Boy” is another experiment from the Isle Of Wight, and he hasn’t played it since. “She Belongs To Me” is the rousing opener from that set, the one that nearly got him killed by the crowd. “Wigwam” has a melody he didn’t bother to write words for, and it all comes screeching home with “Alberta #2”, only marginally better than the first all those sides ago.
So what’s it all about? Self Portrait endures as the first major middle finger from a major artist, except that it’s obvious that the perpetrator actually gave a crap about what he was laying down on tape. Given what else emerged at the time, Dylan was obviously amidst some kind of writers’ block. At the same time, it appeared he wanted to put something out to keep atop of the marketplace. By this time what would soon be known as “bootlegs” had become commonplace, complete with the same lack of chronological thematics as demonstrated here.
The question remains: how much did Dylan care about these tracks? As time went on, he insisted that it was all a ploy to get the fanatics off his trail (“Why was it a double album?” Kurt Loder asked; “If you’re gonna put a lot of crap on it, you might as well load it up!” replied Dylan), but there’s no mistaking the passion that he actually puts into (some of) these performances, especially considering that he’d still be performing a few of them twenty, thirty and forty years on. If you’re not expecting much, you won’t be disappointed. But if you’re expecting something truly lackluster, you won’t be disappointed either. Here in the modern CD age, some of these songs might be best served as bonus tracks on other albums, but it is what it is, and Bob wanted to it to stand. So he did. And it does. So much so that of all the albums he would go on to release over the next forty-plus years, this was the first to get an archeological treatment all its own. That actually helped the cause, but it’s another story for later.

Bob Dylan Self Portrait (1970)—


  1. You wrote: “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo)” is his nod to the Manfred Mann hit.

    I hope you're aware that Dylan wrote that song, and recorded it on the Basement Tapes with the Band in 1967.

  2. Once again, the usual tripe about a significant lp. I think it's reception probably scared even bob. But think about it, if nick cave or neil young released an lp of such diverse covers now wouldn't raise any surprise. It would probably be lauded as a brave but uneven collection of cover material..bob covering bob, influences, an official bootleg. Some of the performances are amongst his best vocal shots ever. 'early morning rain ' for example. As regards "a bunch of woman singers" ..really...can't you be a bit more astute than that?

  3. Once again, the usual "offended" comment by someone who prefers to post anonymously.

    Read those last two paragraphs again. Sure it could be considered an official bootleg, with all the consumer caveats that would accompany them. I disagree about its hypothetical reception in this day and age; my quibble isn't with the song selection so much as the arrangements, and I think people would see it more as a middle finger than anything else. Some of the vocals are among his best, and the rest are among his worst. Hence the 2 rating.

    (As for "Mighty Quinn", I did know that, and amended the line accordingly. If you desire more "astute" commentary, I heartily recommend this blog.)

  4. I realise it's not the greatest album of all time but it's really nice to listen to .It's probably not that easy to produce something earth shattering every time you put an album out ..I just appreciate it for what it is

  5. I loved Bob's version of "The Boxer" on here. I know I'm not supposed to like anything on here, but "The Boxer," "Alberta," and "Days of 49" were great.

  6. I read somewhere--don't remember where--that Bob was trying to break a contract with Grossman, or keep Grossman from getting royalty credit. Obviously, he does like the songs and who else would release a cut of himself flubbing perhaps his most famous song?! So much for Newport '65! A remarkable document, whatever its obscure intentions. Looking back, the tortured reactions to its arrival seem sillier than what they protested.

  7. When I finally listened to SELF-PORTRAIT five years ago (after hearing for decades how bad it was), I was surprised by how much I actually liked it (still am and still do).

  8. " 'Days of 49' is raspier, but you're allowed to be confused."

    What does that mean? Over and over, your descriptions are just lazy. Terrible writing. If you have nothing to say about a song (and that seems to be the case with most of them), then don't bother.

  9. Yea, I definitely see it as possible that this was Dylan's "get off my back" album for his obsessive fans. However, those obsessive fans still try to find a deeper meaning to the album, turning it into a grand artistic statement. I think Dylan wanted a break, so he threw this together and called it a day.

    And Every Dylan Song is a terrific blog. Nothing against yours, but that one amazes me at the detail he goes into ever entry.

  10. I, for one, liked "All the Tired Horses," "Wigwam" and "Alberta #1." The cover of "Copper Kettle" is magnificent. Sure, it's not the best album of Bob's,or of anyone else's for that matter, but it's still listenable (for the most part). And it's eclectic, which is always welcome. I'd rather put this on than anything by Korn, Nickelback or any of those other losers/posers.

  11. I'm not surprised that this album has induced so many comments. I've gained a lot more insight from those about the album than about my paltry review. Thanks for the input.

    I picked up this album in 1986 fully expecting to hate it. 23 years on I'm still up in arms about how I really feel about it. As can be seen.

    I think my comment about "Days of '49" was intended to refer to the contrast between the sweet country voice and the raspy tale of gold-diggers. Whatever my intent, it doesn't matter since I'm obviously such a horrible writer. And just think, there are only 30 or so more Dylan albums to go!

  12. Its a album filled with grace and your wrong gotta travel on is brilliant bob as is muchof this album that is much better then anyone gives credit for and I've listened to since it was brand new- like McCartney's Red rose speedway and wild life its filled with hidden treasures if you have an open mind- great vocals and really some great song covers