In the late 1960s, one of America’s pastimes was the contemplation of Bob Dylan. Music pundits and others were all over Dylan like white on rice, if not blonde on blonde. It was the near unanimous notion that Dylan was the answer. It was the question that was in doubt.
Perhaps feeling hunted, Dylan created a false set of tracks with the release of his inscrutable 1970 album Self Portrait. It was a curious, weak album with a strange title for a singer-songwriter. Self portrait? But it included covers of Paul Simon (The Boxer) and Gordon Lightfoot (Early Morning Rain). Self portrait? But the double LP’s best song might have been the mostly instrumental All the Tired Horses. Self portrait? Vincent Van Gogh rolled over in his grave and cut off his other ear when he heard it.
And speaking of questions, the Rolling Stone writer Greil Marcus had a doozy upon hearing the thing: “What is this [redacted]?”
Many people have had many years to think about Self Portrait since then. (If they could be bothered to.) The reason the album is being reconsidered now is the release of Another Self Portrait (1969-1971), a collection of previously unissued tracks and alternate versions of material released in that era. It’s the latest haul from the vaults for Dylan’s Bootleg Series, and it includes new notes from Marcus.
To no one’s surprise, Rolling Stone magazine is doing a big job of revisionism. Its review of Another Self Portrait is a four-and-half-star standing ovation for Dylan’s “buried treasure.” Funny that the original album, upon its release, was panned by the same publication. And the stinker couldn’t have been buried deep enough, even for fans.
Of the 35 tracks, a baker’s dozen are previously unreleased songs. And, to be fair, this isn’t a reissue of Self Portrait. The second disc is mostly devoted to variations of material from the better Dylan album from the same year, New Morning.
Of the “new” stuff, Pretty Saro is a plum-beautiful rendering of a traditional folk tune, with David Bromberg doubling Dylan on acoustic guitar. There’s a delicate lilt to Dylan’s voice; the wild birds warble, and so does he.
Minstrel Boy, with the Band, from The Basement Tapes sessions, is just one minute and 40 seconds of mess, though.
It goes on, hits and misses among the odds and sods. And, really, that’s just fine. Maybe Self Portrait should never have been issued as an album proper in the first place. Within a rarities collection it has found its true calling, which was to someday answer a question: What else was Bob Dylan up to in 1970?