BOB DYLAN: SELF PORTRAIT (1970)
1) All The Tired Horses; 2) Alberta #4; 3) I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know; 4) Days Of '49; 5) Early Mornin' Rain; 6) In Search Of Little Sadie; 7) Let It Be Me; 8) Little Sadie; 9) Woogie Boogie; 10) Belle Isle; 11) Living The Blues; 12) Like A Rolling Stone; 13) Copper Kettle; 14) Gotta Travel On; 15) Blue Moon; 16) The Boxer; 17) Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn); 18) Take Me As I Am; 19) Take A Message To Mary; 20) It Hurts Me Too; 21) Minstrel Boy; 22) She Belongs To Me; 23) Wigwam; 24) Alberta #2.
«All the tired horses in the sun, how'm I s'posed to get any writing done?» God bless you, Bob Dylan, for always finding a way to make good use of those uncomfortable phonetic mergers in the English language. He was joking, of course, but this time around, people were not amused. They would tolerate an electric Dylan, a psychedelic Dylan, a locked-up recuperating Dylan, a mystical rootsy Dylan, even Dylan the country gentleman — but their patience exploded when they got the evilest of 'em all: a singing, but not songwriting Dylan.
Years later, Bob himself would cautiously «disown» the record, saying that this was simply his most successful attempt at fan alienation — surely, if ʽJohn Wesley Hardingʼ could not stop people from regarding him as the Messiah, and if even ʽCountry Pieʼ was not enough, then at least ʽBlue Moonʼ and a Gordon Lightfoot tribute would do the trick. But this is not highly likely: Dylan was so well used to each of his unpredictable moves perceived as yet another display of his eccentric brilliance that he must have expected a warm reception for Self Portrait as well; otherwise, if he really got what he wanted with all that backlash, why all the fuss to remedy the situation as quickly as possible by releasing the self-penned New Morning just a few months later, without letting all that disgust and disillusionment «sink in» more properly?
I was fortunate enough to sit through my first Self Portrait experience with the Iron Curtain still largely in place — open enough to let me hear the music, but filtering out its Western reputation, so I had absolutely no idea of how much the critical world, spearheaded by Greil Marcus, had set the people against it; and even though I was probably about thirteen years old at the time, I could detect nothing «fake» about it, even though, naturally, there seemed to be plenty of humor and light-heartedness, which was A-OK by me — and, actually, provided a bit of a relief after the «brain-heavy» stuff of the golden years. And now, I'm happy to say, after all those years of putting Self Portrait in its proper perspective, very little has changed. It is not a great Dylan album, but it... wait, who am I actually kidding? It is a fairly great Dylan album, albeit in an entirely different way from the «classics».
Of course, Self Portrait is a mess: most good Dylan albums are. Recorded over a longer period than usual, and, on the whole of it, probably involving more session musicians than the entire number of all session musicians collected from all of Dylan's previous sessions, it features only a tiny handful of original songs (some of them formal «throwaways», like the one-line repetition of ʽAll The Tired Horsesʼ or the two instrumental numbers — expanding the tradition launched with 'Nashville Skyline Rag' the previous year), mixed with four tracks culled from the man's 1969 live appearance on the Isle of Wight and tons and tons of «Americana» covers: some folk, some blues, some country, some adult pop, some light jazz, and some Simon & Garfunkel. Bob's own Pin Ups, three years before Bowie came out with his idea of this kind of tribute album (and was also panned, though, as far as I remember, not nearly as badly).
Everything works: despite the 24-track sprawl, there is not a single misstep. Bob's vocal variety on the album is arguably larger than anywhere else: some of the songs are delivered in his new-fangled «croon», others give us back a more traditional Dylan, and, in a hilarious move, both are overdubbed on Bob's cover of ʽThe Boxerʼ — the «croon», I presume, homaging Art and the «rasp» correlated with Paul, in what becomes a touching tribute and a clever parody at the exact same time (well, depending on how well you know the original). His phrasing is under perfect control — listen to all the subtle out-of-tempo moves made on ʽDays Of '49ʼ that seem like mistakes at first, but are eventually revealed as Bob's usual means of livelying up the effect. The arrangements may occasionally be thrown off balance with some excessive orchestration (e. g. the mock-Tchaikovsky grandeur on ʽBelle Isleʼ), but more often than not, they are tasteful and inventive. And the choice of covers?..
Just a few examples will suffice. ʽTake A Message To Maryʼ was never among my favorites from the Everly Brothers — too much pathos, too much inadequacy between the lyrics (which, after all, tell a rather gruesome tale of manslaughter and imprisonment) and the delivery (which is more of a moonlight serenade than a jail song). Dylan uses his croon, not his rasp, for the song, but even his croon is twenty times «earthier» and more believable than Phil and Don's cooing — and he also has the bright idea to spice the song up with a gritty electric blues-rock line: no doubt, every connoisseur of the original must have been a little bit shocked back in 1970, hearing that electric guitar grumble its way in after the predictable «sissy acoustic» intro at 0:15 into the song. Are the final results «great»? Well, as far as I am concerned, what the man did here was take a well-written, but inadequately performed, folk-pop tune and correct its errors — I find no flaws in this performance. But yes, it's no ʽBallad Of A Thin Manʼ, if that is what Greil Marcus wants to hear from me. It doesn't bother me, either.
Lightfoot's ʽEarly Mornin' Rainʼ, on the other hand, is deconstructed almost à la Leon Redbone (speaking of which, Bob later became a Redbone fan himself) — all the overt emotion and aching pathos taken out of the original and replaced with a quiet, untroubled acceptance of one's fate, making the title character more intriguing and thought-provoking: the song, in my opinion, works better in this interpretation than when one is openly wearing one's heart on one's sleeve.
The old folk standard ʽCopper Kettleʼ, which Bob used to sing with Joan Baez in his younger days at the Village, is remade here with a lush arrangement — strings, keyboards, backup vocals, the works — yet somehow, in the end, feels more intimate and ascetic than in Joan's version. Maybe it has something to do with the backups: Bob has the girls doing this little series of quick one-note "aah"s and "ooh"s, crystal clear to the point of sounding like water droplets plunging into little mountain pools — enhancing the «naturalistic» aura of the song. Throwaway? Exercise in alienation? Not with all this obvious care for detail, it isn't.
The Isle of Wight tracks were most likely the catalysts: «disinterested» versions of ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ and ʽShe Belongs To Meʼ, with even The Band, standing at Bob's side, unable to rectify the situation, must have pissed the fans off more than anything. And it is true: it takes a monster effort to take this whiny, powerless, poor sound quality version of ʽStoneʼ seriously after either the studio original or any inspired performance from the «Judas» era of 1966. It is probable that Bob only sang some of his 1965-66 classics with reluctance at the event, being more interested in his «rootsy» avatar at the time — but even so, the performance is notable for curiosity reasons (for instance, all the crazy phrasing decisions). And, in stark contrast, the band's performance of ʽQuinn The Eskimoʼ, sound quality issues aside, is ripping — this is where Bob totally launches into action, and Robbie lends him a good hand, too, with arguably the fiercest guitar solo he'd had a chance to play in 1969.
Fortunately, time has been kind to Self Portrait. As the «contextual» mist slowly dissipated, as, later on, Bob would start releasing albums that were occasionally blatantly worse than Self Portrait (Knocked Out Loaded, anyone?), as people's feelings towards new Dylan albums gradually became less sharp and demanding, the tide seems to have finally turned — these days, you can find more and more people digging into the past and taking the album for what it is: a sincere, diverse, light-heartedly charming experience at worst, and at best, a little infusion of classic Dylan magic into a set of simple songs. (For what it's worth, ʽLet It Be Meʼ and ʽBlue Moonʼ, the way they are captured here, are among my favorite versions of these songs — I'll give Billie Holiday the edge on ʽBlue Moonʼ for fear of being crucified for tastelessness, but that fiddle solo in the middle is totally awesome anyway).
I am not even appalled by the album's length — on the contrary, expanding the selection to 24 tracks, in a special way, makes Self Portrait reminiscent of The White Album as an unpredictable journey through styles, forms, and moods, where no two tracks standing next to each other are truly alike. «Great» or not, they still show a unique brain shooting off miriads of impulses per second, a mind that shows not the least signs of staleness or tiredness. This is the work of a person who, still at the peak of his abilities, intentionally chose to limit these abilities to «atypical» and, admittedly, «inferior» material — but I'd always take a Dylan at the peak of his powers, fussing around with ʽBlue Moonʼ and old Skeeter Davis tunes, over 90% of other artists at the peak of their powers, trying to come out with something bloody original and world-shaking.
In short, this is clearly a thumbs up, and I insist that it belongs in the catalog of everybody with more than just a passing interest in the Bobster. These days, you actually have an alternative: Another Self Portrait, released as the 10th installation in «The Bootleg Series», offers us an alternate series of outtakes, demos, and early mixes from the 1969-70 sessions, often removing the orchestral and brass overdubs from the finished versions (think Let It Be Naked? but, of course, the analogy would not be complete because the original overdubs were all made under Bob's own supervision and reflect his original ideas). For that matter, did the critics pan it this time? Hate it? Spit on it? Nope — they gave the release glowing reviews and even dragged out old Greil Marcus' bones to offer a semi-apology for the original «What Is This Shit?...» review. Well, from a certain perspective, come to think of it, shit is good — helps plants grow and everything. Anyway, another thumbs up here for fair justice, sweet revenge, and the wonders of time, but more on that later, in the addenda section.
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