Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bob Dylan 15: Dylan

Now this was just cruel. This compilation of outtakes is generally accepted to be something of an intentional insult by Columbia Records, in response to Dylan’s recent defection to Asylum Records. It was compounded by incredibly lazy cover art and a title—the simple yet direct Dylan—that seemed to suggest that these odd covers were the epitome of the man’s creativity, and just as much of a self-portrait as Self Portrait was. But to make matters worse, most of the tracks came from the New Morning sessions, and were actually in contention for release, giving us a frightening vision of just how awful that album could have been had he not written some actual tunes for it.
“Lily Of The West” is just plain excruciating. “Can’t Help Falling In Love” (yes, the Elvis Presley hit) would have been better had he slept off his cold before stepping up to the mic. “Sarah Jane” is laughable, and “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes” is a protest song without much of a cause. And that’s side one.
Side two includes some baffling renditions that people may have heard before. “Mr. Bojangles”, written by Jerry Jeff Walker and popularized by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, has some truly awful backing vocals, which return on the traditional “Mary Ann”. “Big Yellow Taxi” doesn’t do Joni Mitchell’s bank account any favors, and the last two songs send it all back to Self Portrait—“A Fool Such As I” shows he’s got nothing on Elvis, and the overblown “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue” makes the absence of the more subdued B-side (itself no great shakes) more of a shame.
Forty some years of hindsight can put much of the blame on the mix and arrangements. It would have been very easy to present these songs simply, with just Bob singing and playing guitar, and without the backing vocals and other elements slathered everywhere. In fact, given the 21st-century retool of material from this era, we’d almost welcome unadorned takes of “Lily Of The West”, “Mary Ann”, even “Sarah Jane”, if only to discern why he recorded the songs in the first place. (The key word here is “almost”.) Instead, it was decided to have those mewling vocals pinned to the red—not for the last time in his career—and things like the harpsichord in “Sarah Jane” given as much space in the mix as Bob’s simple guitar. Nowadays we can almost get his appreciation of the Great American Songbook; back then such a thing didn’t fly when talking of the spokesman for a generation (their words, not his).
If you hated Self Portrait, you’ll really hate this. Pointedly, it didn’t appear on CD in the US until it was part of a “complete albums” box set, though you could get it on iTunes as part of a $200 download (with 764 other songs, including several repeats).

Bob Dylan Dylan (1973)—2


  1. It wasn't *that bad* Ok it was, but I disagree with your assessment of "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Spanish is the loving Tongue" although that one has a much better outtake from the New Morning sessions (I think). I thought he was having a bit of fun with Big Yellow Taxi, he sounded loose almost like he was sitting around a fireside playing a bunch of hits from the day with his friends or something. But it's pretty obvious that Dylan NEVER intended for these to be released, they sound kind of like warm ups for some other song that never got sung.

  2. When I was a young teen, my sister gave me her copy of "New Morning" because she didn't like it. I liked that album enough that when I saw "Dylan" in the bins at Caldor's, I bought it. What a stroke of bad luck that was. After listening to this album once, I didn't seriously consider anything by Dylan until nearly a decade later. Now he is one of my favorites; though I'd skip this one if it ever came out on CD.