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Self Portrait Outtakes? Really?


Another Self Portrait  coverBob Dylan continues to mine his extensive cache of unreleased recordings in Bootleg Series, Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971). Discounting the “live concert bootlegs” in the series–which include some spectacular stuff–this release makes at least ten 70-minute discs worth of previously-unreleased studio material so far. Much of this consists of alternate versions of songs that appear on his original albums, and I have come to prefer some of these. But there are at least a couple of discs worth of never-before-released songs, a few of which could easily be included on any double-album “best of” compilation I might put together. (I am thinking in particular of “Series of Dreams,” “Angelina” and “Blind Willie McTell.”)

Here for the video? Hit [Page Down] if you are an impatient sort.

I am wary, though, of this new one. Pitchfork.com’s Mark Richardson gives it a glowing review and deals with the fact that it consists, in large part, of outtakes from what is generally regarded as Dylan’s worst album, Self Portrait. In his review he notes that “Dylan sometimes suggested that Self Portrait was deliberately bad, thrown together as a way to confuse his audience or provoke the media into moving on to someone else.” But he discounts this, and believes that Dylan’s suggestion “was a defense mechanism for a mysterious artist who did, after all, have a pretty hefty ego and was deeply aware of his own talent.”[1]

Here is an excerpt from a 1984 Rolling Stone interview in which Dylan talks about the album:

RS: It always seemed to me that you were sort of infallible in your career up until Self Portrait, in 1970. What’s the story behind that album?
 
BD: [...] I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s go on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t givin’ us what we want,’ you know? [...]
 
RS: Which was duly interpreted by the press as: This is what he is …
 
BD: Yeah, exactly. And to me, it was a joke.
 
RS: But why did you make it a double-album joke?
 
BD: Well, it wouldn’t have held up as a single album — then it really would’ve been bad, you know. I mean, if you’re gonna put a lot of crap on it, you might as well load it up!

 
Self Portrait  coverI don’t know what to believe. Reviews for Self Portrait are so bad, I’ve never bothered to listen it for myself. If Richardson is correct in assuming that Dylan did not deliberately “load the album up with crap,” then what kind of quality can we expect from its outtakes? On the other hand, if Dylan did sabotage his own album, maybe he left the good stuff off of it and here, at last, it is.

Rolling Stone magazine praises the following video, which juxtaposes “Pretty Saro”–an 18th century English folk song and an unreleased outtake from Self Portrait–with Farm Security Administration photographs from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. It is a fine performance by Dylan in the voice he showcased on Nashville Skyline. It certainly makes a beautiful soundtrack to filmmaker Jennifer Lebeau’s lovely photographic montage.

It is not a video compilation I am considering, though. I am really curious about the music beyond just this one song. The other two albums from which outtakes were taken, Nashville Skyline and New Morning, are good enough–though not quite among my favorites–to make me hopeful.

Somewhere Bob Dylan or his accountant may be muttering, “Sucker!”

Notes

  1. In fact, he rates it 8.7 on a 10-point scale. Which is to say, he gives it an 87 on a 100-point scale. Come on. His finely-honed critical skills enable him to distinguish between an album that scores 86 and 87? Right. [^]

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