The latest entry in Bob Dylan’s excellent Bootleg Series of rare, archival recordings does little to further peel back any of the layers of mystery surrounding this most enigmatic of rock legends. If anything, the 35 songs comprising the two-disc version of Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 will leave many longtime Dylanologists scratching their heads more than ever.
But therein, lies the beauty.
As any self-respecting fan will probably tell you, Dylan’s many artistic guises over the years, and perhaps more importantly, the continuing fascination with them (particularly among his most obsessed fans), have probably contributed as much to Bob Dylan’s enduring cult of personality as anything else. Remove the masks, and you remove the mystery.
Of course, with any such cultural elevation (and Dylan had it worse than most), comes the sort of expectation that can become a burden for anyone. Even Bob Dylan.
By the time that Dylan released the sprawling, uneven (and some would still maintain, downright awful) double album Self Portrait in 1970, he was already slowly moving away from the strident protest anthems that first got him noticed (and subsequently saddled with the “voice of a generation” label), as well as the artistic weight of his mid-sixties folk-rock masterpieces Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde.
On the two albums following his famous motorcycle accident – John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline – it was clear that, if nothing else, Dylan was aiming for something that, while every bit as musically and lyrically direct in its own way, was also far simpler.
Self Portrait was only the first of many instances that both fans and critics have turned on Dylan over the years (for reference, one only needs to Google his eighties output, or better yet, just go straight to the brief “Jesus” period). But as they say, the first cut is often the deepest, and the initial reaction to Self Portrait back in 1970 seems to have been particularly harsh in retrospect.
To this day, Self Portrait remains the most remembered of Dylan’s many subsequent critical drubbings. Griel Marcus’ original Rolling Stone review – as infamous for its dismissive “What is this shit?,” as Jon Landau’s “I have seen the future of rock and roll” line was in its praise of a still up-and-coming Bruce Springsteen – still stands out as the most damning of them all. It’s practically required Rock Journalism 101. His was far from the only one, though.
Interestingly, Marcus seems to have rethought this position, at least as witnessed by his liner notes for Another Self Portrait. Drawn mostly from the sessions for Self Portrait and its followup release New Morning, the bulk of this package consists of alternate takes and otherwise unreleased material from these two albums, both originally released within months of one another.
This is balanced by a handful of tracks taken from the 1969 Nashville Skyline sessions; a single holdover from the 1967 Basement Tapes with The Band (“Minstrel Boy”); and live versions of “Highway 61 Revisited” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” from the 1969 Isle of Wight show in the U.K. (also with The Band). A deluxe four-disc version of Another Self Portrait features the entire concert, as well as a remastered version of the original Self Portrait album.
The Nashville Skyline outtakes sound particularly sweet here. Dylan’s clear, nasal free vocals on “I Threw It All Away” (which at the time, were attributed to Dylan’s having just quit cigarettes), sound as refreshingly pure and clean here, as they did way back then.
There are further hints of this same vocal purity on a number of the Self Portrait outtakes, none more evident than on the beautifully plaintive sounding traditional “Pretty Saro.” When Dylan sings the line “I dream of Pretty Saro, wherever I go” at the end, his voice trailing off with a pure longing, he hits a rare (for Dylan) high note of near perfection.
The primary backing players on Another Self Portrait should also be noted here. Guitarist David Bromberg and keyboardist Al Kooper are great throughout this set. On tracks like “Alberta #3,” Bromberg’s dobro brings a subtle touch of sweetness, with Kooper’s piano adding a perfect compliment of color. This is repeated to equally understated effect on the unreleased “This Evening, So Soon,” another reworking of a traditional with a stripped down arrangement, topped off by a stunning Dylan vocal.
There are other revelations here as well. Of the two alternate versions of “Time Passes Away” from New Morning, the one on disc two with Kooper and Bromberg, is by far the fuller sounding, with Kooper’s rising organ swells recalling the intro to Joe Cocker’s “With A Little Help From My Friends” from the Woodstock soundtrack. The other take on disc one, is less brassy sounding, but features guitar and backing vocals from George Harrison, as well as a much stronger lead vocal from Dylan. Both vocal arrangements share the dirgy sort of cadence that points a direct line towards Dylan’s mid-seventies work, and in particular to the track “Isis,” From 1975’s Desire. When you listen to this, you can practically hear Scarlet Rivera’s missing violin in your head.
Much like the original Self Portrait, the 35 songs here represent a mix of original castoffs, covers and reworkings of “traditionals” (a.k.a. songs so old, that they are considered public domain). It is also true that perhaps the passage of time allows for a little revisionist thinking, especially when considering the back catalog of a songwriter as historically significant as Dylan (hence the not-quite apologetic, but clearly much more sympathetic liner notes by Marcus).
But there are significant differences here that need to be addressed, in both any critical reassessment of the original Self Portrait album, and the companion piece that this (albeit belated by some four decades) package apparently represents.
First and foremost is the fact that of the alternate takes from Self Portrait, many are stripped clean of the overdubs and production overkill that were one of the major sources of complaint with the original album. But more than that even, there seems to be more of a central thematic focus to Another Self Portrait. As always with Dylan, much of what he sings about is wrapped in an aura of mystery (it wouldn’t be Dylan, if it wasn’t). But there is an unmistakable romantic undercurrent running through these songs.
Of course, it’s also entirely possible this is simply yet “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” some forty plus years removed from the fact, that we somehow managed to overlook or ignore, at least until now.
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
*Article first published at Blogcritics.