Album review

Second time’s the charm for Dylan

More than four decades after the biggest flop of his career, Bob Dylan releases an improbably good sequel

US singer-songwriter Bob Dylan performing in France, July 2012. (AP/David Vincent/File)
US singer-songwriter Bob Dylan performing in France, July 2012. (AP/David Vincent/File)

The 1960s are practically synonymous with Bob Dylan. He released nine studio albums between 1962 and 1969, every one of which (with the exception of his self-titled debut) proved a critical and commercial success. He was the representative of the youth that opposed US military intervention in Vietnam, blasting the leaders who were “Masters of War.”

But the “voice of the generation” kicked off the 1970s with a concept album entitled “Self Portrait.” Meant to be a “return to his roots,” it comprised a collection of cover versions of older folk songs. Commercially it fared respectably, quickly going gold, with sales exceeding 500,000, and reaching #4 in the US charts and #1 in the UK. But critically, it was the biggest bomb of his career. Notably, Rolling Stone magazine’s critic Greil Marcus opened his review with the question “What is this shit?”

Dylan himself has provided some answers — albeit not always consistent ones. In a 1984 interview with Rolling Stone he claimed he’d made the album intentionally bad, in the hopes that his fans would stop seeing him as a leader of the generation. “Wait a minute,” he recalled saying to himself. “I’m just a musician.”

On another occasion, he said “Self Portrait” was released “as a joke.” And in a third interview he said that since he was heavily “bootlegged at the time… I just figured I’d put all this stuff together and put it out, my own bootleg record, so to speak.”

Bob Dylan's 2013 CD "The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 – Another Self Portrait (1969–1971)"
Bob Dylan’s 2013 CD “The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 – Another Self Portrait (1969–1971)”

Now, 43 years later, with Dylan having released the sequel — “Another Self Portrait” — as the tenth album in his own self-styled bootleg series, casual listeners as well as more hardcore Dylan fans might again ask themselves, “Why?”

Listening to the double CD, released on August 27, the answer is immediately clear: “Another Self Portrait” is an excellent album.

More specifically, the collection — recorded during the same period as the original “Self Portrait” and its follow-up “New Morning,” which came out just four months later — may constitute Dylan trying to put to rest the various rumors and theories about what he was thinking when he released the original.

But as good as the “new” album is, some of the tracks still miss the mark. There is a reason the original “Self Portrait” was so derided, and its new incarnation features numerous “alternate versions” of tracks from that original album. Other than “Days of ’49,” this would have been better avoided; once was more than enough for most of these songs.

But among the 35 tracks on “Another Self Portrait” are plenty of previously unreleased songs too, and many of these are standouts. “Working on a Guru,” “Spanish is the Loving Tongue,” and “Thirsty Boots” all make one wonder why they were left out last time around.

The album also features a number of songs that appeared on the “New Morning” album, here in strong, more acoustic renditions. Particularly good are “Time Passes Slowly #1” and the opening track of the album, “Went to See the Gypsy.”

Four songs emerge as highlights: “I’ll be Your Baby Tonight” and the iconic “Highway 61 Revisited,” recorded live at the Isle of Wight in 1969 with The Band, show Dylan and his peerless backing group rocking hard; “I Threw It All Away” surpasses the original version released in 1969’s “Nashville Skyline”; and a piano version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” written by Dylan but originally released by The Band on the 1971 “Cahoots” album, closes the second disc on a high.

Unlike the original collection that so pained the critics, “Another Self Portrait” flows. And the fact that these songs were recorded during the same period as those released 43 years ago really does give some credence to Dylan’s assertion that, whether as a joke or an attempt to turn his fans off, “Self Portrait” was intentionally sub-par.

Hearing the 1970 album now, this fan does not believe it was quite as bad as the critics made it out to be. Yes, many of the songs are downright painful to listen to (notably “In Search of Little Sadie,” and the horrific cover of “Blue Moon”), while others are simply uninspired (his cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”), but there are bright spots — “Days of ’49” and the live version of “The Mighty Quinn,” for instance.

Cover of Bob Dylan's 1970 album "Self Portrait"
Cover of Bob Dylan’s 1970 album “Self Portrait”

But after eight years of some of the greatest, most influential albums of the 1960s, including “The Times They Are a-Changin” (1964), “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965) and “Blonde On Blonde” (1966), one can understand the tremendous let-down fans and critics felt upon hearing a new Dylan album with no message, no poetry, no originality.

It was the second time in five years that Dylan had so infuriated his following. Having established himself as the artistic heir of his personal hero, Woody Guthrie, he disillusioned fans when he “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. But as his message was still fresh, and his poetry still at its best, even an electric Dylan was able to weather that storm. Only in the 1970s did that start to wane, and “Self Portrait” heralded the waning.

It’s remarkable to discover, in 2013, that he hadn’t actually lost his touch then after all.

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