Slow intro, setting the theme
One reviewer of this latest release in the Bootleg Series asks: “Remember the first time you heard Blonde On Blonde, or John Wesley Harding?” He is somehow implying that Another Self Portrait is the same kind of experience, having to do somehow with reinvention, recreation.
Well, what can I say? Yes, I remember very well.
When I first heard Blonde on Blonde, I had already read so much about the album and how great it was, that my first reaction was: “Oh – Was THAT it?” I didn’t think it was a bad album by any means, but I was definitely underwhelmed. Compared to Highway 61 Revisited, for example – the first album I ever bought, before my expectations had been contaminated by public opinions – Blonde on Blonde seemed to be a light-weighter.
As for John Wesley Harding, I just didn’t like it, mostly because of the title track, but that’s another story.
HWY61, however. And Freewheelin’. And BOTT. And GAIBTY. And TOOM. And Planet Waves. And New Morning. etc. Those are albums that struck me. Not because they complied with any notion of Dylan recreating himself (maybe they did, maybe they didn’t), but because they combine immediacy of expression with conscious attention to musical detail.
And even though Another Self Portrait pales to most of these albums, it does have some really bright moments – including, perhaps most importantly, the long “moment” that stretches from June 1966 to, say the 1974 tour with the Band.
The Artist as Creator: What’s Great About Another Self Portrait
And what’s striking about the songs on Another Self Portrait is precisely the immediacy of expression that I mentioned. The new tracks from the Self Portrait sessions are perhaps the most exquisite examples in Dylan’s entire catalogue of one of his most spectacular abilities, which with unironic bathos can be called: to blow life into dead clay.
His ability to take a simple tune, two–three banal chords, and a cliché-filled text, and make you feel that you’re listening to the most important thing anyone has ever told you, and to make you love the people that he’s creating, right before your eyes – and in this case even using borrowed words; this ability is demonstrated to its fullest extent in the ”throwaways” from the Self Portrait sessions.
To Play in Prose
This is not Dylan the storyteller. Nor is it Dylan the interpreter or Dylan the truth-teller (or Dylan the genius, the Bard, the Voice, etc.). I’ve been searching for a phrase to describe that particular aspect of Dylan’s art for a very long time, and ASP has given me a decisive clue. It’s Dylan the inflector, Dylan the variator, Dylan the prose musician.
A song is a strange construction. Part fixed structure, part fluid language, part ineffable mental images, part sensory enjoyment. On all these points, the interpretation can vary from the loose to the fixed. Hearing a song can sometimes be like watching someone solve a sudoku or read from a do-it-yourself handbook – other times, it’s like hearing someone mumble in their sleep. And sometimes the performer hits the soft spot between rigid pattern and loose boundlessness.
There is nothing magical about this soft spot. We all hit it, all the time – because that’s how language works. Any communicating human being is so skilled in this wondrous art, that we don’t even think about it. But it’s really amazing, how good we are at detecting and interpreting even the slightest inflections in the tone of a voice when we’re talking. And how little it takes for us to detect any interruption of the free flow of spoken sound. That’s what good actors are good at: either to make us forget that everything they say comes out of the rigid framework of a manuscript, or to make us disregard that fact or even turn the rigid boundary that we perceive, e.g. in a poetry recital, into an advantage, by drawing attention to its character of not being ordinary language, despite appearances.
This is what Dylan does in Pretty Saro and in Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song, in Thirsty Boots or in These Hands. We are aware, of course, that this is not just a person talking freely to us – there is a melody, a fixed metre, rhymes, etc., all fairly obvious giveaways – but through small variations and inflections, imprecisions and oversights, we are led to forget this, without even noticing.
Take These Hands as an example: the first strums and words are so square and inflexible that it’s almost parodic – the way he sings ”gentleman”, for example, sounds almost tongue-in-cheek. He seems to exaggerate the corny character of the song, holds it up in the listener’s face as if to say: ”Yes, I know it’s a corny song.” And by that admission, the issue is out of the way.
Jump a couple of minutes in, and it’s a completely different song. It happens through tiny little details, which are futile to describe in analytic detail: the slightly off-key ”people have power”, the downward figure on ”grieve”, the three or four different ways he fingers the G chord and how he never plays the same figure the same way twice, the little vocal ornaments that resemble both the pitch-variations that occur in ordinary speech and, well, little vocal ornaments – that kind of things. Sometimes there’s an expressive purpose behind them, but it’s just as much a way to create fluidity and variation – the same kind of ”purposeless” variation that we use when we speak (as opposed to when we recite a sonnet).
I’ve described this almost as if it were a conscious thing that Dylan does. I don’t believe it is — on the contrary, its effect depends on the technique and style to be entirely automatic, effortless.
That’s why we can endure four minutes of Dylan strumming slowly to a simple chord sequence we’ve heard a million times before: he plays prose, and by playing prose, he overcomes the obstacle to direct communication that the artfulness of a song – even the most artless song – brings with it.
Self Portrait redeemed, then, or what?
With the new songs as a key, the songs that did end up on Self Portrait open up as well, once they are stripped of the stale coating of overdubs reeking of commercial record industry that the original Self Portrait is dripping with.
So, does this mean that Self Portrait itself, in perspective and in context, wasn’t such a bad album after all?
Well, I hate to break this to you: if for some reason you’ve always loved Self Portrait, and you see Another Self Portrait as confirmation that you’ve been right all along, despite what people like Greil Marcus (“What’s this shit?”) and myself have said … then – no, you were wrong then and you’re still wrong: Another Self Portrait does not redeem Self Portrait as an album.
What’s great about this collection is not that it proves Greil Marcus wrong (it doesn’t), nor that every single track on it is a cherishable gem from a genius (it isn’t), but that it adds to the perception of an artist in development. It allows us a more nuanced picture of the project (or less pompously: the development) that Self Portrait is a witness of.
This means two things in particular. One: the fascinating merge of delta blues, rock, and country that is evident on House Carpenter, but also on the entire Isle of Wight show. In addition to the stylistic developments he goes through, it also involves a reshuffling of fixed and fluid elements in a melody (more on this in a later post).
Two: an artist willing to go into development when he was standing on top of the world. The album, together with all the outtakes, demonstrates that he wanted to get to something great, perhaps even (but nobody knew, not even himself) greater than what he had already accomplished. Even at the cost of pissing off a lot of fans. Even at the cost of abandoning, yet again, a well-tried recipe for success (and there is no doubt that Dylan has always kept an eye on the bottom line).
But when a father-of-four who probably hasn’t had a full night’s sleep in four years goes into a studio and fools around with some oldies, that may be a sign of an urge for greatness, but not necessarily of greatness per se.
Self-annihilation: What’s not so great about Self Portrait
Thanks to Another Self Portrait, we can now ask the correct question to Self Portrait. Not “What is this shit?” but “Who on earth thought this album was a good idea?!”
This question can actually mean two very different things, both of which, in each their way, are central to the failure of Self Portrait: ”Who on earth had the idea that THAT could be a Dylan album in 1970?”, and ”Whose brilliant idea was it to add slick orchestral arrangements to rough and intimate demos?”
Many commentators have compared Self Portrait to the two acoustic cover albums from the early ’90s, Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. The comparison is apt, not only because of the similar character of the songs that are on these albums, but also concerning the singing and playing style, the way to use the musical an textual language in order to create a ”prose” feeling, that I have indicated above (and, incidentally, also in my review of World Gone Wrong).
Productions like these could work in 1992, when we had just come out of the dreadful 80s and everybody was longing for the Golden Age of acoustic Dylan. They can also work today, when we have a better view of the process in general – we know what happened next, both the Rolling Thunder Revue, the Never Ending Tour, and everything in between. We have the Basement Tapes and the Harrison and Cash sessions. We’ve heard the hotel room clips from Eat the Document, which prove that Dylan was using the mellow crooner voice already in 1966.
But in 1970? Even after John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, the general audience would have been unprepared for a World Gone Wrong-like album. Imagine the best possible version of Self Portrait, containing the best recordings, presented in all their low-key and bare glory — I find it very difficult to see how even such a hypothetical album would have found an audience in 1970.
That’s the first point, which may be of a mostly a commercial character.
The second point takes it from there: What’s apparent from the tracks on Another Self Portrait is that whatever he’s up to, his project is not commercial: he’s not out there to sell us something – no used cars, no snake oil, no “the first joint is free” enhanced escapism – he’s just having a good time with some friends, playing songs that he likes – or perhaps just enjoying a couple of days away from five screaming kids back home.
Whatever the reason, the stew that he mixes depends entirely on the prose-like looseness that the small combo can provide; where Dylan spontaneously can say: ”Let’s just take this one” and start singing ”Little Sadie” with little or no preparation for his co-musicians, who just have to do their best to tag along, to add a lick here and a wrong chord there, and thereby create all the uneven edges that give the final recordings surface and character.
But this is precisely where the released Self Portrait fails capitally: to add overdubs to these tracks is like trying to mix oil and water.
An orchestral arrangement requires everything that the original tracks don’t have: precision, regularity, focus on the musical element.
That’s also one of the things the Nashville musicians Charlie McCoy and Ken Buttrey, who did some of the overdubs, have complained about: Dylan just sent a tape to Nashville for them to add some tracks to, and ”the tempos didn’t really hold together real well, and he wasn’t real steady with the guitar […] he wasn’t even there.”
And that’s the main problem with the original Self Portrait: it sounds, well, as if someone has added a lot of overdubs to a simple tape. The regularity that the overdubs impose on the final mix makes the original tracks seem unfocused and untight rather than loose and leisurely, prosey. In other words: the very thing that we can now perceive as the greatness of the originals, is annihilated and contradicted by the overdubs.
These hands and Thirsty Boots are to Another Self Portrait what Belle Isle and Days of ’49 fail to be to Self Portrait. The former illustrate that “conscious attention to musical detail”, which I started by calling the other leg of what makes a great Dylan album; the latter are proofs that this attention has been neglected, somewhere in the process that ended up with Self Portrait. Thanks to Another Self Portrait, the attention can now return to where it belongs.