Thursday, 19 July 2018
Bob Dylan - Self Portrait (1970)
Released June 1970
Bob Dylan, infuriated by the public’s desire for him to produce works of genius every year or so, supposedly released this album in 1970 as a throwaway work of rubbish, just to spite the ever-expectant public. The perceived wisdom is that it is drivel, much like The Beach Boys’ dreadful “Smiley Smile”. Over the years, however, opinions have softened regarding it. I, personally, have always quite liked it. Taken as an extension of the country style introduced on its predecessor, “Nashville Skyline”, it is not a bad album at all. Indeed, I consider a better album than the previous one. It is longer and its instrumentation more varied and the songs’ diversity is far greater. The music played is excellent and the sound quality superb.
“All The Tired Horses” with its gospel voices and nothing more, is a bit throwaway, admittedly, but “Alberta” is laid-back and sweetly romantic, very much in a “Nashville Skyline” way, and “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” is a twangy and appealing country lament. “Days of ’49”, strong, insistent and bluesy, is a historical tale delivered in confident fashion by Dylan, as indeed is the next track, Gordon Lightfoot’s delightful “Early Morning Rain”. These don’t sound like an artist producing rubbish for the sake of it, to annoy people. He actually sounds as if he is enjoying playing this sort of material, as indeed he had on “Nashville Skyline”. The intensity in which he attacks the sad tale of “In Search Of Little Sadie” can’t really be questioned, in my book. Dylan’s cover of the ballad “Let It Be Me” may have appalled some, but I have always fund it charming and disarming. “Little Sadie” is a fun slice of country, acoustic boogie, while “Woogie Boogie” is the real thing - some upbeat barroom rocking piano. Damn, I am enjoying listening to this again. In many parts it matches the similarly sprawling and country-style experimentation of “The Basement Tapes”, which is much-lauded by pretty much everyone. Furthermore, everyone loved The Byrds' "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, from 1968, so why not parts of this?
“Belle Isle” is just endearingly lovely. Just take these songs in isolation, if you have to, forget they are Bob Dylan, the composer of “Desolation Row” and so on. Just enjoy them for what they are. “Living The Blues” is, as would imagine, bluesy. The sound on it is superb, bassy and captivating. Dylan’s vocal is sleepily appealing, as are the Elvis-style “a-ha” backing vocals. The band are top notch. None of this album sounds half-baked or throwaway to me. What the heck, if some embittered “musos” disagree with me, or moaned and griped in 1970 - who cares?
“Copper Kettle” could easily have been a track from “New Morning”, to be honest. If it had been, it would have garnered praise. “We an’t paid no whiskey tax since 1792” is a line I have always liked. “Gotta Travel On” has some intoxicating percussion rhythms and some bluesy slide guitar. This is a very “Beggars’ Banquet”-style song. That album was loved by everyone. If Mick Jagger had wrapped his tonsils around this, it would have been loved, so why not this? It’s great.
The quality does admittedly suffer a little as the double album continues on its way. I have not commented on the live tracks, as I feel they were superfluous to the album. “Blue Moon” is veering into Elvis territory and also the sort of thing Dylan unfortunately records nowadays. Dylan’s cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” doesn’t work as well as their version and Dylan’s lazy-ish vocal here does him no favours. “Take Me As I Am Or Let Me Go” is a steel guitar country crooner. “Take A Message To Mary” certainly would not have sounded out of place on “Nashville Skyline”. Again, though, it is perfectly enjoyable, taken for what it is. “It Hurts Me Too” is a relaxing country ballad. “Minstrel Boy” is bluesy and somewhat drunken in deliver. “Wigwam” certainly is a waste of time, a rather discordant brassy instrumental, rather like a New Orleans funeral. “Alberta 2” is a nice, rhythmic and bassy end to the album, raising the quality back up a bit.
By its end, the album does start to lose its appeal a little. A single album would have been far preferable and could have contained quite a few tracks, as they are quite short. It would not have been criticised as much, take out the live tracks and some of these at the end and you have a reasonable album. Go up to “Gotta Travel On” (leaving out the “Tired Horses”), add “Alberta 2”. That’s thirteen shortish tracks of good quality. It was the adding on of too much sprawling filler that did for this album, not the first half of it.