There are plenty of misconceptions about Self Portrait — more than enough to prevent even some hardcore Dylan fans from seeing the appeal of a compilation compromised largely of its outtakes. Most importantly, there’s the common rumor (partially propagated by the artist himself in the 1980s) that Dylan became suddenly interested in recording other people’s songs in an effort to make a deliberately “bad” album. But the move toward other people’s material was not a sudden one: The first sessions for the album began less than two years after the recording of the reverent, cover-heavy, Band-backed sessions that resulted in The Basement Tapes. In the cultural imagination, those recordings are profound, whisky-drenched explorations of American “roots” music (complete with quaint tape hiss), whereas Self Portrait is just Dylan’s misbegotten “covers album” (“Pretty Saro” rubbing shoulders with Gordon Lightfoot and an Everly Brothers tune?).
In truth, Dylan, Danko, Robertson and Co. paraphrased everything from Curtis Mayfield to “One for My Baby” during those 1967 get-togethers. All songs were fair game, as they were during the Self Portrait sessions. Despite the inclusion of several live performances with The Band on the album, critics and Dylanologists rarely connect the two, and Self Portrait continues to be regarded as snarky and anomalous.
The folksong-centric album would no doubt be more widely understood as a serious effort if it wasn’t so distinctly un-”folky” in its presentation. Albert Frank Beddoe’s ’40s ballad “Copper Kettle” comes bearing a Lawrence Welk-like, shlock-pop overlay, and Scottish folk song “Belle Isle” is borderline easy listening of the Pat Boone variety, mostly due to its use of a soupy string section. Devices like these sometimes make the traditional tunes nearly indistinguishable from the pop covers. Because Dylan didn’t adhere to any kind of “authentic” performance style or M.O. for Self Portrait, he was castigated, and worse, suspected of blatantly mocking his source material.
But if Dylan was mocking anything, it was Bob Dylan, or at least the construct of “Bob Dylan” he’d been forced to live with. The original Self Portrait eschews embracing anything anyone could perceive as a persona (country singer, folk/protest singer, countercultural rock star) by trying out as many personas as possible. It’s Dylan’s ultimate presentation of himself at a time when he was still miffed by what everyone thought of him, and it remains deconstructive and baffling.
The recording history is part of this mythos; since the material is culled from many different sessions, demos and a concert bootleg, the fidelity is as disparate as the music itself. There’s nothing confessional on the album; the most expansive and emotional moments of the record are cryptic, like the wordless “Wigwam” or “All the Tired Horses,” which is not sung by Dylan at all. He picks some live versions of career-defining statements from the Isle of Wight festival (“Like a Rolling Stone,” most obviously) that do not add another discernible dimension to the songs; they leave one cold and puzzled. Self Portrait takes every opportunity to shatter any cumulative feeling or response one could have to it.
The outtakes included on this new release, however, make a convincing argument against the accusations of the album’s fundamental disingenuousness. Even the messiest or most baffling performances sound sincere and inspired here; take, for instance, the assorted versions of “Little Sadie,” the raucous, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music-style “Bring a Little Water, Sylvie” or the piano-driven, Warren Zevon-esque “Spanish is the Loving Tongue.” In addition to this new material, some of Self Portrait‘s best performances reappear with overdubs removed. “Copper Kettle,” notably, is stripped of its accoutrements, throwing one of the best-recorded examples of Dylan’s post-Nashville Skyline croon into relief.
After listening to Another Self Portrait several times through, I returned to “The Boxer,” perhaps Self Portrait‘s most hated song, and listened past the sloppy harmony overdub to Dylan’s lead vocal. He’s belting out the song underneath it; when you listen in, you cease to hear any potential sarcasm. It’s entirely possible that this set — especially its first half — will help listeners to understand the original album in a new way.
The second disc focuses largely on outtakes from its follow-up, New Morning, a compelling record of Dylan originals which took shape during the same sessions. The fact that Self Portrait and New Morning were recorded at essentially the same time, and came out within four months of each other, was, and is, one of the most perplexing facts about Dylan’s career. The confusion and frustration was only made worse because Dylan insisted on discussing both nonchalantly, as if they were two parts of the same coin. But New Morning features some of Dylan’s best work of the ’70s, and creates a sense of warm invitation, like sitting in a stranger’s living room and having him play a handful of his favorite songs.
On Another Self Portrait, we get fascinating glimpses of the different albums New Morning could have been: for one, a heavily produced pop/rock record. There’s “Sign on the Window” done as a power ballad, rife with dramatic string swells and harp glissandi from the notorious pit orchestra of Self Portrait (ultimately, entirely absent from the final draft of New Morning), and a jaunty revamp of the title track with a dense, Chicago-esque horn section.
At one point, George Harrison stopped by the studio; if anything from that session had been used, the dominant instrumental force on New Morning might well have been his distinctive guitar leads. The take of “Time Passes Slowly” (complete with a jolly, “la la la”-based refrain) and canned original “Working on a Guru” showcase Dylan at the center of a well-oiled, live rock band. There are also near-solo acoustic performances, including “Time Passes Slowly” on a Fender Rhodes in free tempo, and an “If Not for You” during which the gaps between vocal phrases are filled with fiddle improvisations.
Outside of the historically interesting material, there are also, as on all of the Bootleg Series issues, some recordings that are important only because they capture such exceptional performances. A solo piano and vocal rendition of The Basement Tapes‘ “When I Paint My Masterpiece” from 1971 ends the second disc, and it is probably the single finest moment of the compilation. This kind of recording (of the same caliber as the hushed “Idiot Wind” outtake from the second volume — my favorite B.D. recording) is what makes the Bootleg Series an indispensable part of his catalog, and what makes Another Self Portrait recommended listening even for fair-weather Dylan fans.