Another Self Portrait — a review in sonata form

Self Portrait
Self Portrait
Another Self Portrait
Another Self Portrait

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, twothree 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.

19 thoughts on “Another Self Portrait — a review in sonata form

  1. Hello. I wanted to first thank you for all your amazing work on all of these Bob Dylan songs. Dylan is my passion as well. I am a musician and he is my inspiration and favorite artist of all time. I visit your site often.

    My comment is in response to a question you posted at the end of your post of the new Another Self Portrait songs. You asked, “Who will be the first to find the source from which Dylan has stolen the cover image? A flickr account? An underrated b/w photographer from the 30s? A Barnes & Nobles commercial delivered to the tour bus in Stirling Castle during the 2001 tour?”

    I believe I have the answer. It is well known now that Dylan uses many sources to inspire his paintings (and writings) including known pictures which he paints off of or “interprets”. I believe the cover art for Another Self Portrait is yet another mysterious and comical twist in Dylan’s complex web of truth. It is Dylan continuing to mess with our heads. It is him finding pleasure in the fact that we will never truly figure out who this man we all admire truly is. It has been speculated that Dylan’s recent pop art pieces of fake magazine covers which displayed strange pictures and obscure headlines was possibly the work of artist, and Dylan’s friend, John Prince. And that Prince was using the name Dylan.

    Now if you read the most recent Rolling Stone interview with Dylan, it is clear that to Bob, Dylan is not a real person. Dylan is a character in which he plays. A character who has shape shifted over the years, changing is voice, his music, his speech patterns, his attitude, and his persona many times over the years. Dylan is a character who the real Bob has invented, killed, altered and resurrected many times before. It is my believe that he continues to do so, now with his painting as well.

    The John Prince theory states that maybe Dylan is trying to confuse use again and that he is somehow using the Dylan character in conjunction with John Prince art, any that maybe the recent pop art magazines was not even done by Dylan himself. Also, a recent alleged Dylan impromptu painting session occurred in Central Park in NYC with a group of nude models. A painting was posted online but no one, including the women models ever saw Dylan. This is also suspicious.

    Finally, looking at the Another Self Portrait album cover, it is clear to me that it is a painting of artist John Prince himself, done in “Dylan’s” painting style. Look up pictures of John Prince now, and when he was younger (and with hair). The resemblance is very clear in my opinion. Now the million dollar question is why would Bob Dylan put a painting of artist John Prince on his album called Another Self Portrait? If it is John Prince and called Another Self Portrait, that implies Prince painted the picture of himself just as Dylan did in 1970. But it is painted in “Dylan’s” painting style. Does that mean Prince has something to do with Dylan’s art? I’m not sure. All I know is that Dylan continues to weave his own complex story where the truth is just a blur.

  2. Really interesting . . .though we depart on the use of over-dubs on SP; I think they really work well on the older, Nashville Skyline-type tracks (eg Let It Be Me, Take a Message to Mary) but jar with the SP tracks where Dylan’s vocal is more wayward, where, in effect, he is trying to find a new voice . . . and even on some of those (eg Copper Kettle) the over-dubs work well.

    1. Fair enough – I wouldn’t claim that overdubs are bad in every single case – the tracks that you mention are not so bad, perhaps even better with the fuller orchestra than without it. So yes, valid point.

  3. I have read a lot of reviews of ASP, but this is the first one that really gave me something – new, maybe the word. A really great review!

    Steinar Daler

  4. Thanks for the insightful review in a swirling sea of media drivel and copy cat blogs. I just can’t decide if $100 is what I should spend.

    Since this is my first communication with you, I want to thank you for your decades of dedication and work which has added immensely to my understanding of Dylan, and my ability to decode the music. You are the man!

  5. big e, you had me right up to the point where you listed a bunch of mediocrities as being somehow superior to blonde on blonde. your credibility was shot for me from that point on. sorry.

    1. Sorry ’bout that. It is funny how a side remark about Blonde on Blonde can cause so many reactions in a piece about another album. But I’ll leave that aside. I’d just like to point out that by no means do I think Planet Waves is a better album than BoB – It’s not, in my book nor in any sane person’s.
      The remark was made in response to a line in another review (which I embarrassingly forgot to check and link when I first posted — I’ve remedied that now), which did two things: first, cite from the author’s own fanzine review of SP from 1970, where he implied that the reason why some people didn’t like the album was that Dylan had moved on, they hadn’t — he had reinvented himself, and the petty souls couldn’t handle it. Then: use ASP to elevate the SP project to the level of BoB and JWH:

      things might have been so different if the recordings on Another Self Portrait had been released in Self Portrait’s place. Though I still dig Self Portrait, the new album blows it away.

      I disagree on both points: Great as BoB is, it’s actually not particularly reinventive, and nice as ASP is, it never reaches the level that BoB occupies.
      So my apologies if somehow I managed to create the impression that I don’t like BoB. My point was to pick on (and pick up on) the notion of what makes an album memorable (as in “remember when you first heard…?”). And there, circumstance is key, both the circumstance in which you have met an album (which is why Planet Waves is a more important album to me than Blonde on Blonde, for reasons that have nothing to do with the musical quality) and the circumstances under which it is presented (as in: SP or ASP).
      So one might say: my aim was to deal with the question: what does ASP do to SP? And in order to answer that, I’d have to go by way of the questions: what is it that ASP does in the first place? What is ASP? And how does it do what it does to SP?

  6. Thanks for an interesting piece. I disagree with you on a number of points and I think I’ve figured out why from considering our difference of opinion about Blonde on Blonde, which is my all-time favorite album ever by anyone. (Planet Waves? Really? It’s not bad, but …) Your focus seems to me narrow (chords, vocal phrasing, technical matters, all worth discussing of course) whereas what I love about BoB is its worldview, its consistent sweep, its ability to create a universe — and of course the drumming, the singing, the playing; but they are tools for conveying something greater.
    Now, take that approach to the original Self Portrait, which I always enjoyed without ever considering it any kind of masterpiece. The album as a whole does have a point (and of course Dylan’s quote about pissing off everyone is … a bit exaggerated), and leaving out the whimsical harmonies on The Boxer, or the mumbled Early Morning Rain, or the oversweetened countryish bits, would have sabotaged that point. We’d have been left with what Another Self Portrait actually is: a collection of tracks of varying interest and quality.
    Now, looking back 40+ years, there is some interest in the collection, and what it shows about where Dylan was at. But the original album was a true whack upside the head, an assertion of Dylan’s place as part of the historical musical mainstream (very broadly defined). He tried to do that with Nashville Skyline, I think, but most listeners got confused by a false syllogism to the effect that country is bad but Bob is good, this is country, therefore Bob is, um, oh, put it on again willya, who cares, and just waited for the next “real” Dylan record. Which, of course, was Self Portrait.
    Much confusion might have been avoided if more people had reread the liner notes to Bringing It All Back Home … he was just writing WHAAAAT on his favorite wall.

    1. Thanks for commenting in such detail. I’d like to remark on one thing in particular that you say:

      Your focus seems to me narrow (chords, vocal phrasing, technical matters, all worth discussing of course) whereas what I love about BoB is its worldview, its consistent sweep, its ability to create a universe — and of course the drumming, the singing, the playing; but they are tools for conveying something greater.

      That’s a very precise description of my method. Yes, my initial focus is indeed narrow, and that’s a very conscious choice. But my goal is precisely “worldview, sweep, ability to create a universe”. I actually describe Dylan as a creator-god at some point in the review (“blows life into dead clay”) — how much bigger do you want the sweep and how much more world-view do you want from a song analysis? :)
      What has occupied me for my entire academic life has been the bonds between the things that are undeniably there (sounds, e.g.) and those that are not there in any simple sense, but which are nevertheless obviously effective (such as “worldview” or “something greater”, or “history”, “truth”, “musical experience”).
      A religious mystic would perhaps start at the latter end and go back to the trivialities of existence and see proof of the divine there. I prefer to take the other route: to start with what’s actually there and try to root the loftier materials in this reality.
      The most prominent benefits of this approach are (1) intersubjective accountability — you can take the same song and refute my interpretation if you wish, and thereby the entire edifice that I build upon that analysis, whereas if someone says: “I put out the album just to piss people off”, there is no way I can go back and check that. (2) Hopefully it gives a chance of identification and resonance between my experiences and yours. If I describe certain sound events in a certain way, you should be able to “hear” what I’m describing, whereas if I say, e.g., that his playing is in tune with the universe, or something like that, that’s a much more difficult description to relate to, to say the least.
      One might say, concerning Dylan, that I’m much more interested in what he does than in what he says he does. So when he says in chronicles that “I released one album (a double one) where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it, and then went back and scooped up everything that didn’t stick and released that, too,” I take that into consideration, but my number one guide is my own reactions (e.g.: “why do I like These Hands even though it’s far too simple for my taste and despite the false notes here and there?”).
      The good artist is the one who lets me build a world view from the sounds that he makes.
      So when you say: “and of course the drumming, the singing, the playing; but they are tools for conveying something greater,” I agree with your conclusion — I just prefer to anchor it explicitly in the drumming, the singing, and the playing. That’s, after all, the things that we hear. And, I should add: that we enjoy.

      1. Aha! So we ultimately agree … which is good. It’s outside-in vs inside-out, I guess, ending up in much the same place. I’ll just add two things: first, that it took me a while to understand that (for instance) Kenny Buttrey’s drumming was so good and so essential, that is, to tease out the specifics that subconsciously informed my own unexpressed reactions; and second, which often surprises people who know me as a word guy (writer, reader, punster), I frequently take ages to learn Dylan’s lyrics — I often treat his phrases as indicators of mood and almost never even try to analyze a whole song as if it were a poem (which it isn’t, not that it’s worse, just different). Every rule has its exception, and Mr Tambourine Man is an exception!

  7. I have lived with these Tracks for some days now listening to almost nothing Else,except for some DIE STROTTERN i gabat ois- Check them Out!.. And from Morning to right now.know bob Gibson? i Love it. It can’t get any mor e beautiful than pretty saro ..go to thirsty Boots and. Ole Bill helps you to understand what’s Happening in these hands….and they had some pretty Good stuff Even on original Self Portrait,even Dylan a fool such as i had this Spanish is the loving tongue that made me smile…pure Late Willy deville just as the Take on ASP makes me cry. Know bob dylan? …never

  8. one of the best parts about this new bootleg series release is getting to hear your always carefully considered opinion and commentary on it. great to read something new from you on dylan :).

    probably the worst thing about this new release is to hear people endlessly praise these sessions as some work of brilliance. don’t get me wrong–dylan is a true genius, and even his garbage is interesting, as a. j. weberman will tell you. and in that spirit, i enjoyed listening to “another self portrait”. it had quite a number of moments that surprised me (“wallflower” isn’t a bad song?! “if dogs run free” had a chorus?! “minstrel boy” was played during the basement tape sessions?!?!). and it exposed the level of post-production meddling bob johnston did to the original self-portrait, much as “tell tale signs” did concerning “time out of mind”.

    but this is NOT great music. compare these academically interesting outtakes with the exhilarating, exciting country/rock/folk of the isle of wight festival gig. or the version of “spanish is the loving tongue” that appeared as the b-side of “watching the river flow” (one of the most beautiful dylan recordings i’ve ever heard). or “father of night” from “new morning”. or the new tracks on “greatest hits, vol. 2”. or the “concert for bangla desh” performances. or the “george jackson” single. he certainly had flashes of inspiration during these years, more inspired than this alternate version of “country pie”.

    i’m not really trying to put down this new collection, which is worthwhile for hardcore dylan fans (who would get it regardless). i guess this is my way of echoing and elaborating on the point you opened with: let’s not get so enthused about this album that we put it in the same rarified air as his masterpieces.

    and i guess what i’m really saying is, i appreciate this collection, but i’m gonna be pissed if they get me to buy this but never give me either the gospel years album or the supper club album. ’tis a heavy cross to bear, being a dylan fan.

    1. Amen to that, and hallelujah and praise the lord and all that if it ever happens. I won’t hold my breath.
      Thanks also for your intro. :)
      And your comments in between are a perfect opportunity for me to continue my answer to pete’s comment above. I agree with your description of the hyperbole about what a masterpiece this is, but the album also highlights how difficult it is to argue about greatness. That’s a commonplace, of course, that “de gustibus non est disputandum” and all that. I still think that it can — and should — be done, but not with the aim of proving greatness objectively. One can hardly do more than point to elements and combinations of elements that incite a certain reaction in the listener.
      The songs that you mention are interesting, because my reactions to them range from “Yes! That’s exactly it!” to “Meh, don’t like that one”. “Spanish” is an absolute masterpiece, whereas the Bangla Desh songs are to whiny for my taste.
      That same perspective can be applied to ASP too: I wouldn’t compare them to D-Row or Simple Twist of Fate, but they’re far from garbage. What’s my criterion for saying that? Just that I like them. Why do I like them? I don’t know, but I can’t get them out of my mind, those phrases from Thirsty Boots and Annie, and the first line of Pretty Saro, etc.
      As a listener, that’s more than enough for me. As an academic (and someone who is expected to write something about new Dylan albums…), I have an urge to step closer: why can’t I get them out of my mind? How does he do what he does to me?
      Is it a masterpiece? Probably not. I’ll think a little more about that while I listen to These Hands again.

      1. i agree it’s impossible to objectively define greatness. and yet, i suspect there is some objective quality to greatness. after all, few would deny the greatness of “desolation row”, and even my dad, avid dan fogelberg fan, recognizes the greatness of “like a rolling stone”. i suspect understanding this objective foundation of greatness is something like the grand unifying theory physicists hope will one day explain how the universe really works. as you put it, “the bonds between the things that are undeniably there and those that are not there in any simple sense.”

        another thought, perhaps part of the reason i can’t enjoy this new collection is i can’t help but compare its eclectic & spontaneous cover versions to the genuine basement tapes sessions or the ’90s folk albums, and i find them lacking on both accounts. i know this is an unfair criticism of “another self portrait”, but then neither can i hear “blood on the tracks” for the first time again.

    1. I agree; I always loved SP and ASP is even better. And Blonde on Blonde is perhaps the greatest rock album by anyone, ever. I still have my 1966 vinyl pressing; a thing of beauty.

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