Bob Dylan, Another Self Portrait (Columbia, 2013)
Bob Dylan knows how to anger, alienate and scandalize his audience. In 1965 he strapped on a Fender Stratocaster and sent shock waves through he folk community. In 1979 he took on the mantle of John the Baptist and infuriated his liberal audience. In between, in 1970 he made a move arguably as radical as his shift from acoustic to electric and secular to sacred; he became a country crooner covering “Blue Moon,” “Let It Be Me,” “It Hurt Me Too,” and “Take a Message to Mary.” Worse yet, the recordings were embellished with strings and background singers. And, the final shock: Dylan entitled the work Self Portrait.
In the latest installment of the Dylan bootleg series, Another Self Portrait, Dylan’s chroniclers have released different versions of a half dozen of the songs on the original Self Portrait, as well as out-takes from those recording sessions, together with different versions of songs from Nashville Skyline, New Morning and other previously unreleased songs from 1969–1971, altogether thirty-five songs. The alternate versions of songs featured on Self Portrait come without overdubs. Beneath the overdubs, there is buried treasure, the potent interplay between David Bromberg and Bob Dylan.
Four observations. First, with Dylan, less is almost always more. Putting studio polish on Dylan obscures and tarnishes his work. The demo of “Went to See the Gypsy” from New Morning is a gem, foreshadowing the master works on Blood on the Tracks. Second, Bob Dylan can sing. His Nashville-Skyline styled vocals are beautiful. Listen to “Pretty Saro.” Third, Dylan’s audience should take a cue from him and lighten up a little. “Working on a Guru” is not high art, but Dylan and George Harrison seem to have enjoyed themselves. Last, most of the songs on Self Portrait, and not a few on Another Self Portrait, are not Dylan originals; if you really want to know who Bob Dylan is then listen to “House Carpenter,” “Little Sadie” and “Spanish is the Loving Tongue.”