It’s funny how perspective can change over time.
When Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait was released in 1970, the reaction was legendary. Music critic Greil Marcus, known for writing thousands of words when only a few are necessary, opened his Rolling Stone review of the album with the words “what is this shit?”
It is easy to understand the disappointment. Dylan, after all, was still considered the “voice of a generation”. Despite the fact that he had virtually disappeared from the public eye since a motorcycle accident in 1966, his fans were still expecting his music to reflect the turbulent times of the late ‘60’s. Instead, he released this double album of primarily cover tunes that were buried in sappy orchestration and background vocals.
The truth is that Dylan was suffering from writer’s block. As he has done throughout his career, his way of bringing back his muse is to inundate himself in other people’s tunes. Not just traditional folk and country tunes, but also songs written by contemporaries. In this case, those current songwriters included Paul Simon (“The Boxer”) and Gordon Lightfoot (“Early Mornin’ Rain”).
Years later, the album is considered a bit of a curioso more than anything. What was going through his mind when he gave the ok to this release? What does it say about his mindset?
We now have a more clear picture of 1970-era Bob Dylan, thanks to Another Self Portrait, the tenth volume of his expansive “Bootleg Series”.
Another Self Portrait came to exist a couple of years ago when his label decided to finally remaster the original album. When it was discovered that some of the tape reels were damaged, Dylan’s people began rummaging through the archives. Besides finding copies of the released tunes, they uncovered reels and reels of material they never knew existed.
The highlights of this box, which came out today in a variety of packages including two and four disc versions, are bare bones versions of much of the original Self Portrait tracks. With the syrupy overdubs dumped, the interplay between Dylan, guitarist David Bromberg, and keyboardist Al Kooper are greatly highlighted. It’s actually quite amazing that eliminating elements of a song can result in a performance that sounds more nuanced. These songs now breathe, and Dylan’s vocals are among the best of his career.
This box doesn’t just contain Self Portrait outtakes and demos, though. There’s a few alternate versions of 1969’s Nashville Skyline tracks, and quite a few tracks from the sessions that turned into New Morning, which was released just four months after Self Portrait. (It was rumored at the time that Dylan rushed out New Morning because he was embarrassed by Self Portrait, although he had started on that album first.) The result is an album that may not have changed the world like Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde On Blonde, but would certainly have been much better received if released.
Besides the two discs of outtakes and alternative versions, the box set version also includes a remixed version of the complete Isle of Wight concert from 1969. A handful of poorly mixed tracks from this show was on the original Self Portrait, but this new mix is revelatory. Dylan and The Band still had the magic of their 1965-66 tours, particularly on a blistering version of “Highway 61 Revisited”. It’s well worth the extra cash for this rare late 60’s concert appearance.