Bob Dylan's Self Portrait Period Revisited


“What is this shit?” Greil Marcus famous wrote in the opening to his 1970 Rolling Stone review of Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait. In the decades since its release, Self Portrait continues to be one of Dylan’s most contentious albums. The primary reason being no one knows exactly what to make of it? After seven years of releasing ground breaking music through iconic albums like The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding, it looked like (and sounded like) Dylan farted out Self Portrait. It was a capricious collection of rather sloppy covers of current popular folk songs, traditional folk ballads, as well as 1950s rock and roll tunes overlaid with gaudy string arrangements and lastly, loose live recordings from his performance at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival (including a version of “Like A Rolling Stone” where Dylan stumbles over the lyrics). Dylan himself even acrimoniously said: “I just threw everything I could think of against the wall and whatever stuck, released it, and then went back and scooped up everything that didn’t stick and released that, too.” One could justify a feeling of stolidity when Columbia Records announced this summer that they would be releasing the two-disc Another Self Portrait as the tenth installment of Dylan’s Official Bootleg Series, covering his 1969-1970 Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning periods.

A few weeks ago, the world received this alternate version of Dylan’s musical history. In a way, the thirty-five-song collection exculpates Dylan from the fulminating reviews the original Self Portrait earned. The songs on this new collection are either alternate takes or variant mixes, a bulk of them coming from Self Portrait and New Morning. Many of the traditional folk songs that Dylan covered for Self Portrait are presented for the first time sans the overdubbed strings, thus allowing the austere beauty of Dylan’s interpretations of tunes like “Pretty Saro”, "Days of 49", “Alberta #3”, "Thirsty Boots" and “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue” to be fully appreciated. Dylan’s vocal on “Pretty Saro” is stunning; he has never sounded tenderer. Stripped down demos of originals like the acoustic “Went To See The Gypsy” and sparse piano version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” are refreshing in their stark presentation, as is the vulnerable piano and violin rendition of "If Not For You."  Forget Self Portrait’s enervating live version of “Like A Rolling Stone”. On Another Self Portrait, listeners get impassioned and rowdy renditions of “Highway 61 Revisited” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” from that same 1969 concert. Beatle fans experience the joy of hearing Dylan jam with George Harrison on an alternate take of “Time Passes Slowly” and the facetious “Working On A Guru”. Included also is an enjoyable second version of “Time Passes Slowly” without Harrison, where the instrumentation and dynamic changes sound like they were designed for a Joe Cocker record. Additionally, from the New Morning outtakes is an interesting version of “New Morning” with “Got To Get You Into My Life” style horns, as well as an alternate version of “Sign On The Window” where the orchestral overdubs work better to add emotion to the track than the overdubs on some of the original Self Portrait material.

Not everything on Another Self Portrait is a winner. There are skippable tracks like his cover of “Annie’s Going To Sing Her Song”, as well as the inert low-fi Basement Tape outtake of “Minstrel Boy”, the insipid electric piano version of “Went To See The Gypsy” and the prosaic “Wigwam”. However, those are moot points when looking at the depth of this thirty-five-song set. All in all, Another Self Portrait stands as further testament of Bob Dylan’s greatness and provides greater insight into his development as a songwriter and interpreter. Outside of the ten volumes and counting of his Official Bootleg Series, Dylan has released thirty-five studio albums. The fact that he and his label can still dig through his archives and present florid amounts worthwhile material is redoubtable proof that he will continue to stand as a titan of music revered by generations to come.

Essential tracks: "Pretty Saro", "Highway 61 Revisited" (Live at the Isle of Wight), "If Not For You", "Thirsty Boots", "Alberta #3", & "Spanish Is The Loving Tongue".

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