Self Portrait

Bob Dylan

Columbia, 1970

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Greil Marcus of Rolling Stone opened a review of Self Portrait, the 1970 double-album from Bob Dylan, with the phrase, “What is this shit?”

After listening to the opening track “All The Tired Horses,” I found myself asking the same question of this disc, arguably one of the more confusing releases in the vast discography of the former Robert Zimmerman.

There are differing stories as to how this album came into existence -- many of them from Dylan himself, according to Wikipedia -- but to my tired old ears, and after (God help me) repeated listens of this set, it sounds like a closet-cleaning effort. How else do you explain mixing the smooth Nashville Skyline-style vocals with rougher-sounding efforts? It’s all over the chess board, to be sure, and there are plenty of all-out failures on this one, but there are a few moments that dare to save the whole project.

This disc is a mixture of leftovers from the then-still-unreleased Basement Tapes, live performances, studio warm-ups and -- well, frankly, I don’t know where some of these came from. Is it a problem to mash these all together? Not really -- if anything, one could argue this was the precursor to the obligatory box set that nearly every recording act seems to release these days. It is, however, a little disconcerting to have all these styles of music and vocals mixed willy-nilly, so the listener isn’t really ready for the sudden changes in style.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

A lot of the reviews I’ve read take Dylan to task for the number of, and choice of, covers that are on Self Portrait. I beg to differ a little bit in this regard. Actually, I found it interesting to hear Dylan cover such different musical styles as Rodgers/Hart (“Blue Moon”) and Paul Simon (“The Boxer”), and while these may have just been used to get the band warmed up in the studio, they actually have some substance to them. The same can’t be said for his cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” which gets bogged down under its own plodding weight.

The live material doesn’t fare very well here -- to my ears, it was all recorded in the “country twang” voice (which, by the way, I happened to like better than the mumbling that Dylan became known for). Takes on “Like A Rolling Stone,” “The Mighty Quinn” and “She Belongs To Me” sound like they’re compulsory covers, with very little feeling or emotion put into the performances. That sinks these tracks for me.

The bulk of Self Portrait falls under the category of “hit or miss”. That is, for every successful track such as “Wigwam,” “Woogie Boogie,” “Copper Kettle” and “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” there is an equally impressive (if that’s the right word) failure, such as “Days Of ‘49” (which sounds a lot like the birth cry of “Hurricane” at times), either version of “Alberta” on this set, and “Belle Isle.”

So, was Dylan trying to alienate the people who believed that every note he recorded was pure gold by releasing an album laden with crap? Was Dylan merely trying to relieve his archive of a backlog of tracks or possibly deliver an album when he wasn’t ready to do so -- New Morning followed a mere four months later? (There were tracks from this session that didn’t even make it onto this set – and saw the light of the day on the infamous “revenge” release Dylan.) Was he -- gasp! -- serious with this disc?

The truth is, we’ll never know, Dylan being the enigma that he is. But Self Portrait is the kind of disc that will shock even the diehard fans with a dose of reality – namely, that their hero did have a weakness, and this disc was the kryptonite. It is worth checking out for the truly successful tracks, but extreme caution should be exercised with this disc.

Rating: C-

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© 2008 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia, and is used for informational purposes only.