Rating:In 1970, critic Greil Marcus began his Rolling Stone review of Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait with uncharacteristic clarity: “What is this shit?” Bob Dylan’s tenth album was a double-LP whose hour-long running time is standard practice in the compact disc era, but at the time was considered far too much of a bad thing. Self-Portrait earned almost universally negative reviews. Self-Portrait isn’t as awful as its reputation, but for every winner like “All the Tired Horses,” there are howlers like “In Search of Little Sadie” and the cover of “Blue Moon.” The new set is more listenable and better sequenced, and there’s more than enough for the fan who’s only semi-obsessive.
Another Self-Portrait takes tracks from the original recording sessions and removes overdubs, an approach similar to the Beatles’ Let it Be… Naked set that stripped away layers of Phil Spector’s goop to get at a much better album than the original release. But the problem with the 1970 Self-Portrait—and this is coming from someone who likes much of the album—isn’t just overproduction, but performances. Dylan’s phrasing at times goes completely off the rails. “In Search of Little Sadie” is one of the worst performances in Dylan’s deep catalog, his readings lazy and badly timed in a way that must be deliberate given the perfect conviction of a fully-realized performance like “House Carpenter,” one of the best unreleased tracks from the Self-Portrait sessions.
An 18th century child ballad, “House Carpenter” is the story of an epic journey, sung by a man returned from the sea. It could go back millennia. Dylan first recorded it in 1961, and the difference between the versions shows how much his voice had developed. In the earlier recording, the young Dylan, still in the gin-soaked shadow of Woody Guthrie, tries to sound like a much older man. By 1970, Dylan had long had his own artistic voice. His mature singing is more open, and he takes his time with the arrangement, two minutes longer than the 1961 version but compelling for all its six minutes. Dylan nails this one, which proves that if he hit clinkers elsewhere in the sessions, it wasn’t because he didn’t know any better.
In interviews, Dylan has suggested he threw a game because he could, because he didn’t want to make yet another Great Album that Defined his Generation. He wanted to make something about himself not as the voice of American but as a man, warts and all. There’s your self-portrait. The title Another Self-Portrait doesn’t just refer to the reviled 1970 album. Most of disc two consists of alternate versions from the better-received New Morning, and a few tracks from a frequently bootlegged gig with the Band at the Isle of Wight. The unreleased tracks from New Morning include the first official release of the widely bootlegged “Working on a Guru,” with George Harrison on guitar. Another Self-Portrait may send you back to the 1970 album, and back here again. It will definitely encourage re-spinning New Morning, where you might want to stay a while.
Bob Dylan recast traditional music in different ways (hello, electricity) as his own voice developed. He was always informed by the musical past and willing to put his own musical past behind him when times and his pipes change. Today, Dylan has the old man’s voice he’s always wanted. Another Self-Portrait is an elder statesman reassessing a rough spot in his career and finding it’s not so bad.