Recorded: August 1969-March 1970
Released: June 8, 1970
Recorded: February 1969-March 1971 (plus one track from 1967)
Released: August 27, 2013
“What is this shit?” That’s the famous opening to Greil Marcus’s Rolling Stone review of “Self Portrait”. I think the what is easy to answer: it’s a grab bag of old-ish traditional folk songs, contemporary folk-ish songs, country songs, some very minor original songs, and some re-dos of older Dylan originals.
I think what was really baffling Marcus was another question: “Why this shit?” Why cover cheesy country songs, contemporary folk/country songs by lesser songwriters? And what’s up with the few odd originals.
I think the reaction to this album would have been much different if people had known what Dylan and The Band actually were up to in the basement of Big Pink. They ran through a bunch of old-ish traditional folk songs, some contemporary folk songs, a bunch of country songs, including some really cheesy ones, some older Dylan songs, as well as a bunch of odd Dylan originals… that’s just what Self Portrait consists of!
But don’t get my wrong: Self Portrait isn’t a good album, so why’d Dylan release it. The Wikipedia article gives a couple of the well-known theories, both of which are based on what Dylan himself said. One is that he essentially was trolling the world: he released some stuff he thought was bad in order to get everyone to stop thinking of him as a kind of prophet and just leave him alone. The other theory is basically that he knew whatever he recorded was going to get bootlegged, so he decided to just cut out the middleman and bootleg himself.
Hmmm…. The second theory makes more sense to me, but there’s still something I don’t understand, which leads me to my question: “why this specific shit?” To see why I ask this, I’ll turn to the Bootleg Series: Another Self Portrait. The track listing includes 13 songs recorded during the Self Portrait sessions. It also includes the entire Isle of Wight concert, a few songs of which were included on Self Portrait.
Here’s the thing. If those 13 recordings and some of the Isle of Wight tracks had comprised the original Self Portrait, the reaction would (or at least should) have been totally different. The selection of songs is much better, and even for songs that were included on Self Portrait, they come across totally different without the horrific overdubbed strings and background vocals. (Seriously, it sounds like they were going for Elvis-type arrangements… just awful.)
So, my advice is never listen to Self Portrait, but definitely check out Another Self Portrait. “Pretty Saro”, “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue”, “Thirsty Boots”, “This Evening So Soon”, and “Copper Kettle” all showcase what a great song interpreter Dylan is. Another Self Portrait also is worthwhile because of the New Morning alternative versions, which I’ll mention when I get to that album.