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When Bob Dylan released what was originally a double LP set (now a single CD) in June 1970, such was his British fan base that it entered the album charts at No. 1, in the process dislodging the almost unstoppable mega-selling Simon & Garfunkel 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' for a week. This was despite almost uniformly bad reviews, notably one from Rolling Stone magazine headed, unusually for those rather staid days, 'What is this s***?'
I grew up loving the Dylan of 'Blonde On Blonde' and 'John Wesley Harding'. But I hated the next album, the country and western croonfest 'Nashville Skyline', and when I first heard 'Self Portrait' I was one of those who could hardly believe what was coming out of the speakers. Forty-odd years later it is revealed as a heavily flawed curiosity, but not without its redeeming features, and some reviewers speak much more kindly of it now than they did then.
Dylan has put out several reasons for his motives in issuing this extremely uneven collection consisting partly of cover versions, traditional songs and instrumentals, and four live cuts. One was that bootleg records of material he had recorded over the previous few years but not intended for release were in circulation - quarter of a century before the internet, when you had to know the right people to ask and the right places to look, so he thought he would release his own bootleg. Another was that he was fed up with being seen as the spokesman for a generation, and thought he would astonish everybody with a pop, yes a pop, album. He certainly did.
'All the Tired Horses' is a weird way to open. A song consisting of merely two lines sung over and over again by a couple (or so it sounds) of two female vocalists, accompanied by Mantovani-like strings, it then fades out without going anywhere...very avant-garde, but why? After that odd diversion it's into more familiar Dylan territory with the folksy acoustic guitar-driven 'Alberta #1', plus trademark harmonica break, a traditional number and not a very interesting one at that. The same song is reprised in a longer version at the end of the record, with a slight change in tempo - but why he needed to do it twice, with not much difference between either, your guess is as good as mine.
If you like Dylan the country singer of 'Nashville Skyline', you'll enjoy the easy-on-the-ear waltz 'I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know' with its lush steel guitar, piano, and rather cheesy backing vocals. Taking the other tracks out of order, the same can be said of 'Let It Be Me', a ballad originally co-written and sung by Gilbert Becaud in 1955 and recorded by many others, notably the Everly Brothers, in the ensuing years. Ditto 'Belle Isle', another traditional number, soaked in sickly strings. Otherwise, you'd do better to skip these.
Likewise, are you ready for his version of Rodgers & Hart's 'Blue Moon'? Taken at a slower pace than the Marcels' early 1960s version, with the backing vocalists' 'oooh-oooh-ooohs' going into overdrive, at least it has a minor surprise with the fiddle break at the end. Likewise two songs written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, 'Take Me as I Am (Or Let Me Go)' and 'Take a Message to Mary'. They're all very middle of the road songs, with Dylan trying to sound like a rather less tenor or baritone version of Jim Reeves or Roger Whittaker. Close your eyes and you can almost picture him in a tuxedo, sitting on a stool with mic in hand, appearing on something like the Royal Variety Show. For me, it doesn't represent the real Dylan. But maybe that was his idea all along.
Thankfully it's not all as bad as that. Some of the cover versions are satisfactory, once you can get your head round the fact that a few years ago he was writing such good songs that it was other people who were falling over each other in order to cover them, instead of the other way round. Gordon Lightfoot's 'Early Mornin' Rain', with trademark harmonica and a lightly picked acoustic guitar lead, is harmless enough, even OK. I also quite like 'Gotta Travel On', although his crooner vocal style takes the edge off it for me, but at least it has some energy. Paul Simon's 'The Boxer', which is much shorter than the original, I'm in two minds about. On one hand I think it's a complete mess, and wonder if the vocal double-tracking throughout was really necessary, but in a way it's so odd it's quite interesting. The folk ballad 'Copper Kettle' is pretty dreary and not worth more than the occasional listen.
There are three more traditional songs. 'It Hurts Me Too' is a rather uninspiring ballad which seems to bear no resemblance to the old Elmore James blues number. 'In Search of Little Sadie' is weird, with odd things happening to the melody and tempo, almost as if he is making it up as he goes along. I can almost imagine him laughing after the tape has been switched off. The same song appears a few tracks later on, retitled 'Little Sadie', but this time much faster and only using two chords.
'Living The Blues' is in a class of its own. One of Dylan's compositions, it sounds very late 1950s rock'n'roll, with Elvis's Mess Of Blues' and 'Singing The Blues' coming to mind. Once you can get past the idea of Dylan singing rock'n'roll with utterly cheesy female backing vocalists supplying the 'ahas' at intervals, it's quite fun. Having said that, I found a clip of him on Youtube performing the song with acoustic guitar, and a band out of camera (or a backing track) on a Johnny Cash TV show. I think it sounded better without the backing vox.
Next, two more-or-less instrumentals, credited to him as writer. 'Wigwam' is a slow and rather appealing chant, as Dylan la-la-las along to a majestic brass tune. Inexplicably it was released as a single, but nobody took any notice. Far, far better is 'Woogie Boogie'. Only a pinch over two minutes long, this is a wonderfully infectious boogie piano-led 12-bar, with lead guitar, drums and brass following, finally a sax solo. Frankly it could be almost any other band with that instrumental line-up, and there's more than a passing resemblance to 'Honky Tonk Train Blues', the old standard which gave Keith Emerson a solo hit in 1976 - but no denying that it's well done.
Finally there are four tracks, also his own compositions, recorded live at the August 1969 Isle of Wight festival with The Band. As far as I can establish, these are the only IOW cuts ever officially released on record. 'The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)' sounds quite spontaneous if not under-rehearsed, threatening to fall apart at the end but somehow just remaining on its feet. Taken at a more boisterous pace than the more familiar Manfred Mann version the previous year, it may be very rough at the edges but is still probably one of the best tracks here. 'Minstrel Boy' promises great things, especially with that accapella opening, but the song itself is rather forgettable. 'She Belongs to Me' rocks quite spiritedly with piano, guitar and drums, but 'Like a Rolling Stone' fails to ignite. I adore the original; the ferocious live version from 1966 recorded at Manchester (known to posterity, thanks to a mistake along the way, as the 'Albert Hall' concert version) which he spat out at the audience after one of them shouted 'Judas!' at him is wonderful; and another concert recording, on 1974's 'Before The Flood', is great too. But on this one, he sounds as if he's just giving the crowd what he thinks they want to hear without putting heart or soul into it.
As for the packaging, the front cover includes a not terribly elegant self-portrait in oils. If I had a copy, I certainly wouldn't hang it on my wall. Inside and on the back are a few photos of a relaxed, less intense-looking Dylan sporting trimmed hair and a neat beard, one taken onstage at the Isle of Wight.
So how do we sum this one up? I think the man looked in the mirror and decided he was going to have a bit of fun by teasing his audience, by putting out something they didn't expect. It definitely sounds better with age than it did at the time. Some of it's quite good, some of it's weird, and occasionally it's awful - but you will rarely find fans who agree on which are the worst tracks. It's that kind of record. If you're unfamiliar with Dylan, it's definitely not the one to start with. If you know his other stuff well, give it a try but preferably at budget price if you can find it cheap enough, which you almost certainly can.
The Amazon page has a 'preview all songs' facility, which is probably as good a way to sample it as any.
[Revised version of a review I have published elsewhere online]
Self Portrait is a strangely underrated Dylan album, and has been for a very long time. It was originally derided mainly because it wasn't what fans and critics expected of Dylan at the time; you would have thought, now that that's all in the past, that newer critics and fans might have had a different opinion about it - but it doesn't appear that they have.
This is sad, because Self Portrait is a very good album, though it is overlong. There are fourteen or so solid performances, including a few classics, broken up by eight or so performances that really shouldn't be on the album. The live performances from the Isle of Wight - with the exception of "Minstrel Boy" (not available anywhere else) - are sloppy and really serve no purpose other than to prove how lacklustre Dylan's set was that year. And a few of the studio cuts ("Days of 49" especially) are simply bad performances, and shouldn't have been included - plus there are a few instrumentals and alternative takes that are just superfluous, and just serve to bog down the album. And there are some songs that are interesting, and fun to listen to, but not too many times (eg Dylan's joke take on Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer," in which Dylan records himself singing the song twice, in two completely different vocal styles, and cuts one over the other - hilarious). But take these away, and what you are left with is a strong album of country classics and Dylan originals, much in the vein of Nashville Skyline but with some individual performances that even top anything on that album.
These performances are "Early Morning Rain" and "Copper Kettle," two absolutely beautiful performances that are the real highlights of the album, Dylan's singing pitch-perfect on both. At a slightly lower level than these two, but still wonderful performances, are "It Hurts Me Too" (brilliant lovesick country blues) and "Belle Isle," a Dylan original with a lovely and instantly memorable melody.
If you liked Nashville Skyline, chances are you'll like Self Portrait. And if you like it a lot, chances are you'll do your own copy of it and cut out the songs that shouldn't be there - and you'll discover that a few questionable selections don't make a bad album - that they especially don't make an album that's been as much maligned and derided as this one. You'll discover that, camouflaged by a few sloppy superfluous songs, Self Portrait contains a wonderful, relaxed, and immensely enjoyable album, a perfect companion piece to Nashville Skyline.
Derided upon it's release, 'Self Portrait' was tarred with the tag of being Dylan's worst ever outing, a feat possibly equalled by the long since deleted 'Dylan', this is a messy collection of songs, lacking any real direction & seemingly that way intentionally.
It has been suggested Dylan made 'Self Portrait' so uneven intentionally, he disliked being branded a 'spokesman of a generation', & used this album as a vehicle to rid himself of the tag. Perhaps confirming such conspiracy theories, was the appearance of the much stronger 'New Morning' only months later.
Certainly far below his usual standards, much of what is here is filler, with only really 'The Mighty Quinn' that is essential. There are re-workings of previously recorded tracks, covers, live tracks with the band, the end result being a complete mish-mash which leaves an impression of confusion.
The album is an anomaly coming after a decade where Dylan barely put a foot wrong & released consistently great albums every year, but this is too sprawling & confused to spend the time trying to figure out.
Selfportrait Bob Dylan Looking through Ross (my son) CD collection I found a really unusual Bob Dylan album. Selfportrait contains traditional songs, covers, live performances from the Isle of Wight ’69 and many scraps from various recording sessions. Although not Dylan’s greatest album, Self Portrait does have some redeeming features. This album was released by Columbia music when Dylan moved to Big Sky music as a slap in a face to him . All The Tired Horses The album starts of with a female chorus of “All the Tired Horses” this is the worst start to any Dylan album, Why is this here? Bob Dylan wrote this. Alberta 1# is a much better song also penned by Dylan; he has a nice mellow voice. I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know Is Bob Dylan in Crooner mode long before 2001’s Love and Theft? This is one of the best songs on the album; I could listen to this song all day. Days of ’49 is a traditional sounding song and is quite boring to listen to. Early Morning Rain Is the first song on the album to be covered by both Elvis and Bob. He sounds very relaxed, almost like a crooner, this has got bad reviews but I really like this. Dylan seems a fan of Gordon Lightfoot, who wrote the song. In Search of Little Sadie Is the first version of the song. This was recorded at the Nashville Skyline sessions and he seems to be parodying his on unique singing voice. It is a good recording, the first of two recordings of this song on this album. Written by Dylan Let It Be Me Is a version of a song that was sung by Elvis a ye
ar later. Bob goes into crooner mode again and is an excellent version of the song. Little Sadie Is a faster version of In Search of Little Sadie; the guitars in here make a difference and are better than version 1. Woogie Boogie This is a strange instrumental by Dylan using saxophone and piano. It’s definitely not a traditional Dylan song. It’s a great one to listen to when I’m on the glider as it has a great beat. I’m getting Ross to copy this for me so as I can use it repeatedly . Belle Isle From the obscure to sublime, Belle Isle is a gorgeous song and is a parody of a Celtic ballad. Is voice is clear and crisp and is very dreamy. Living The Blues Written by Bob, this is a very jazzy song and uses female backing singers. It feels a very 1940s type song; the backing singers are probably the same ones on All the Tired horses. Like A Rolling Stone A live version of the classic Dylan song. A reasonable version but I have heard a lot better. Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight) Another cover song. Nice enough, lovely background music on this track. Again it feels a very old song.( experience talking here lol) Gotta Travel On A foot tapping Elvis Presley type song. This is a very Country and Western song. A nice sing a long type song. Blue Moon Another crooner song. I really like his version, interestingly Dylan chooses to add the “happy” verse:- “An suddenly she appears before me, The Only one my arms could ever hold. I heard someone whisper please adore me. And when I looked my moon had turned to
gold” (I bet you kept on singing this one when you read it) This indicates that he wasn’t thinking about Elvis’s version as Elvis NEVER sang this verse. The Boxer A cover of the Simon and Gartfunkal song. This is very poor and sounds like a ramble. Mighty Quinn This was the only single from the album. See Like a Rolling Stone Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go) Yet another Country and Western type song, complete with backing singers. Surely Dylan and backing singers don’t work? Take a Message to Mary This about a man in jail, and not wanting anyone to tell her girlfriend he has committed a crime and is in jail and is lonely. His voice sounds really mellow and he sounds if he is really enjoying it. It Hurts Me Too Written by Dylan it’s a pretty simple song for him, excellent guitar work. Minstrel Boy I don’t like this either. This is Dylan live in 1969. She Belongs To Me Bad live version of the classic song. Wigwam An instrumental with Dylan humming in the background( quite unusual) So there you have it a real mixed bag of songs. I’m not as big a Bob Dylan fan as Ross is but I like some of his stuff. Selfportrait. It is £7.99 in Amazon, however Amazon’s version is missing Little Sadie and Take a Message to Mary. Ross bought his one about 8 years ago though and it was £10 then. www.bobdylan.com Margaretxx I’m at my computer and something is wrong Listen!! There’s nobody singing a song Ill hunt
through some music I’ll try some from Ross He won’t really mind As he knows I’m the boss Here’s some Bob Dylan Not to everyone’s taste Some really good songs For each and every race The words that he wrote Yes! They came from the heart There’s so much to hear So where can I start Hope you enjoyed the read and sorry I haven’t been about as much but I’m waiting for loads of things to be added here. Margaretxx
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 All The Tired Horses
2 Alberta No 1
3 I've Forgotten More Than You'll Ever Know
4 Days Of '49
5 Early Morning Rain
6 In Search Of Little Sadie
7 Let It Be Me
8 Woogie Boogie
9 Belle Isle
10 Living The Blues
11 Like A Rolling Stone
12 Copper Kettle
13 Gotta Travel On
14 Blue Moon
16 Mighty Quinn
17 Take Me As I Am
18 It Hurts Me Too
19 Minstrel Boy
20 She Belongs To Me
22 Alberta No 2