To this day, Self Portrait stands as one of the oddest recordings Bob Dylan ever put his name to.
A hodgepodge of folk tunes, pop covers and concert relics, the double album was cut with a lean core of like-minded artists (David Bromberg, Al Kooper) before producer Bob Johnston threw on overdubs by seemingly every Nashville studio pro he could find. Released in late spring 1970, the record was a colossal mess, earning Dylan some of the worst reviews of his career.
This sets up the 10th and newest entry in Dylan's archival "bootleg series," Another Self Portrait (1969-1971), as a return to the scene of the crime. It scours many of the songs and sessions from Self Portrait and its more streamlined and satisfying follow-up, New Morning (released mere months after Self Portrait), and serves up much of the music without the overdubs and production touches. There are nods also to the sessions for The Basement Tapes and Nashville Skyline, the projects that preceded Self Portrait, but they are brief. The primary thrust of Another Self Portrait is the folk inspiration that fed into the original Self Portrait and New Morning.
The album is available in two editions: a double-disc version boasting 35 previously unreleased songs, and a deluxe four-disc package that includes Dylan's full 1969 performance with The Band at the Isle of Wight festival. The two-disc edition is being reviewed here. From that, what emerges is less the offhanded experiment that Self Portrait began as and more of a folk retreat.
For instance, the unaccompanied demo version of New Morning's Went to See the Gypsy enhances a narrative that, in its original form, sounded incomplete. Here it packs a sense of mystery that backs Dylan up to 1968's brilliant John Wesley Harding. Cutting more to the essence of Another Self Portrait is the traditional This Evening So Soon. It is served with such jocularity by Dylan, Bromberg and Kooper that you might almost forget how profoundly sad the story line is. Ditto for Cooper Kettle, which is stripped here of the Nashville trappings that weighed the Self Portrait original down like concrete.
There are surprises, of course. None of Dylan's albums new or old come without a few. Two surface in alternative versions of New Morning's Time Passes Slowly. The first is a light quartet reading, with harmonies and guitar from George Harrison. The second is a blues-soul rampage more in keeping with Joe Cocker's band from Mad Dogs and Englishmen. The electric barnyard version of Highway 61 Revisited (a teaser from the Isle of Wight show) is a hoot, too, making the Self Portrait era seem more of a playground than it ever did at the time.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.