BOB DYLAN: DYLAN (1973)
1) Lily Of The West; 2) Can't Help Falling In Love; 3) Sarah Jane; 4) The Ballad Of Ira Hayes; 5) Mr. Bojangles; 6) Mary Ann; 7) Big Yellow Taxi; 8) A Fool Such As I; 9) Spanish Is The Loving Tongue.
The infamous «Columbia Revenge Album» — impossible not to mention, even though, for a long time, it held the status of being officially «deleted» from the label's catalog (at the time of writing of this review, it has been announced that the album is finally getting CD release). The backstory is well known: in 1973, upon the expiration of his contract, Dylan left Columbia to sign up with David Geffen's Asylum Records — leaving his former label free to capitalize on the old threat of flooding the market with «from-the-vault» Dylan releases (which the people at Columbia had already voiced as early as 1967, when there was a failed attempt to sign up with Warner Bros.).
Curiously, though, the choice of action at Columbia was entrusted to idiots — who, instead of mining the gold vein of Bob's early recordings (the ones that, later on, became the Bootleg Series), decided that the record-buying world would rather be thrilled with something relatively recent. To that end, Columbia's «sleuths» fell upon the abandoned cache of outtakes, recorded by Bob in the early stages of the sessions for New Morning (June 1970). At that time, the army of negative reviews for Self Portrait had not yet appeared on the horizon, and Bob with his band were still heavily mixing covers of ancient and recent material with original compositions — apparently, the basic idea was to release something like Self Portrait Vol. II, but the hostile reception of the first volume eventually led Bob to scraping all that and releasing nothing but original compositions for New Morning.
Apparently, the people responsible for the assembly process of Dylan were not aware of any of those controversies — the only thing that mattered was that those were still steaming-hot outtakes from relatively recent sessions, and that would make them relevant competition for whatever new stuff Bob was going to put out on Asylum. Thus, wasting no time at all, Columbia put out this small bag of «surprises», consisting of seven outtakes from the New Morning sessions and, so as to bring the running time to a respectable length, two more earlier outtakes from the Self Portrait sessions. Critics-wise, the project was doomed from the start — and commercially, it did not fare all that bad, but, naturally, it did not manage to outsell Asylum's Planet Waves.
How do the songs fare in retrospect? Well, nothing that Bob tried out at the time can really count as «proverbially bad», and if we accept his temporary role as eccentric interpreter of other people's ideas in the first place, it makes little sense to praise Self Portrait while sternly castigating Dylan. However, there are still major differences between a piece of «finished product», which Self Portrait was, and raw, incomplete outtakes as captured here. For one thing, the songs are less imaginatively arranged — they do boast the presence of Al Kooper on keyboards, but other than that, it is usually just Bob and his acoustic/harmonica team, whereas much of the subtle magic of Self Portrait was due to various overdubs (electric guitars, brass, strings, etc.).
For another thing, some of these tracks feature the ugliest female backup vocals you will ever hear on a Dylan album. On Self Portrait, they usually provided light, simple, folksy prettiness. Here, many of the backing parts sound like a swarm of drunk landladies, trying to sing way below their normal range and having a hard time hitting the right notes, especially on the traditional numbers (ʽMary Annʼ, ʽSarah Janeʼ, etc.). This lends an air of dull, unintentional stupidity to the songs — something that Dylan could never have been accused before.
Another flaw is that by June 1970 Bob had altogether abandoned his «croon» — which came so very much in handy when covering pop ballads like ʽLet It Be Meʼ. Now, when he decides to have a go at Elvis' ʽCan't Help Falling In Loveʼ, he delivers it in his usual rasp, and the final result sounds like a bona fide parody, and a rather pitiful one, worth, perhaps, a chuckle and a dollar bill toss in a low-level comedy club, but little else. The take on Joni Mitchell's ʽBig Yellow Taxiʼ is less irritating, as the song is humorous and playful rather than deeply sentimental, but it is also disappointingly faithful to the original — «reinterpreting» Joni Mitchell would be one thing, but imitating Joni Mitchell is just kind of dumb.
Still, some of this stuff works. ʽThe Ballad Of Ira Hayesʼ, from Peter LaFarge's repertoire, is an unexpected and welcome echo of Bob's protest song period — even though he recites the verses rather than sings them, the ultimate effect is not any less resonant than on any of the songs from The Times They Are A-Changin'. Jerry Walker's ʽMr. Bojanglesʼ, likewise, turns into a melancholic character study, and Al adds beautiful organ parts that, for a while, almost succeed in bringing back the wintery atmosphere of ʽOne Of Us Must Knowʼ. And ʽLily Of The Westʼ, if only the annoying female backup vocals were taken out, with its sparse, but haunting old-timey sound, could have cozily fitted in on the original John Wesley Harding.
Of the two Self Portrait outtakes, ʽSpanish Is The Loving Tongueʼ is the better known and the more widely discussed — a throwaway on its own, but it might have been a welcome addition to the album as a whole, adding a little tongue-in-cheek Latin flavor to the rich choice of scents already present. At the very least, here we have the nice croon and the pretty harmonies. But it is also seriously out of place on this record — best solution would be to simply mix it in with some of the other Self Portrait tracks.
On the whole, this one is clearly for biographers and fanatics. Since most of the songs come from one specific session, it does have a reason to exist as a separate album, rather than be split into a bunch of bonus tracks — but the album reflects a rough, unlucky, transitional session that is not likely to cause you much listening pleasure, or influence your understanding of the Dylan phenomenon in a positive way. For all of this, as well as for the formal reason of having been released without Bob's consent, Dylan should be a fairly clear-cut thumbs down case, but in the end, turnoffs like ʽCan't Help Falling In Loveʼ and the ridiculous caterwauling on ʽMary Annʼ are still outbalanced by turnons like the haunting harmonica parts of ʽLilyʼ or the honest world-weariness of ʽIra Hayesʼ — and, besides, the true era of musical stagnation for Bob was still years ahead, so I find «condemning» a record like this to be an unnecessary harshness. Now the weird guys at Columbia Records and their misguided choices — that is a different matter.