A Different Light On A Different Era

A simple and kinetic drawing of a man's face Greil Marcus compared Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait album to a pile of excrement on it’s release in 1970. Now, 43 years later, he is writing liner notes to a collection of outtakes from the album, which Rolling Stone reviewed favorably. It certainly makes one wonder how credible “serious” rock music criticism is, or at least make one realise how much revisionism there is in critical taste.

And yes, there has been revisionism in the view of Self Portrait -moving from the view that it was Dylan trying to destroy his own reputation, to one of an artist both moving back to his roots and in new directions. A number of songs have appeared on movie soundtracks, and the album is now spoken about in serious terms as an important part of Dylan’s development.

Another Self Portrait, Volume 10 in the Bob Dylan bootleg series, covers more than just the 1971 double album -it goes back briefly to Nashville Skyline , and forward to New Morning (which was just a few months later) and a few songs from 1971 sessions. The new record certainly extends the view from the original albums that Dylan was willing to experiment in studio, and in this regard, this does make it an interesting listen for Brian Wilson fans. Sign On The Window is re-invented as an orchestral epic, the title song of New Morning is represented here with horns, while Went To The See Gypsy is transformed in the alternate version as a soul ballad. There are some interesting new covers, including the lovely Thirsty Boots. However, for me, the strongest song is the alternate take of I Threw It All Away,  which is simply one of the great pop songs.

It’s easy with critical opinion, as in life, to go for one extreme to the other.  This collection, and the original albums, are not piles of malodorous items, nor are they perfectly formed musical works. But what this collection does reveal, for me, is that Dylan was always more than just a folkie, or a protest singer, or a beat poet, or whatever particular phase he was going for. Ultimately he was, and is, part of the great American songbook, and this period shows him more willing than ever before, or maybe since, to experiment with interpreting as well as writing great songs from a variety of eras and traditions.


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