Self Portrait, which Another Self Portrait the now 10th entry in the revelatory Bob Dylan Bootleg Series canonizes, could be considered the rock laureate’s first full swing and a miss. The run-up to his 1966 motorcycle accident was thoroughly unimpeachable from the folk/rock split of Bringing It All Back Home to the electric sea change of Highway 61 Revisited and finally cresting on the sublimely surreal Blonde on Blonde. No matter where the pied-piper of rock trod, an entire generation followed. When he went to sidelines after the crash, everyone waited for the timeout to be over. The inauspicious return record John Wesley Harding in late 1967 met the same feverish intensity. He pared down his lyrics, but the crowds remained. The country croon he adapted for follow-up Nashville Skyline presented a clear attempt to trim the fat; however glowing reviews by Rolling Stone prevented any weight loss. The “voice of a generation” moniker weighed on Dylan and the man himself noted, “that notion needed to be pulled up by its roots.”
Even provided that warning, few could have predicted how far Dylan would burrow to sever the roots. When Self Portrait sprouted in June 1970, Greil Marcus infamously asked “what is this shit?” in his Rolling Stone review. Traditional folk tunes elbowed schmaltzy pop-rock. Live cuts nestled alongside studio outtakes, sequencing be damned. The tossed-off “The Boxer” cover was so tongue-in-cheek Dylan’s puffy face could be seen from miles away. The country croon of Nashville Skyline grew tenderer. When his voice was at its softest the cries of “foul” would grow the loudest.
Released four months later, New Morning fared demonstrably better, receiving the label of “his best album since…” an honor now bestowed to any marginally successful album post-Blood on the Tracks. He slid back into the nasal tone and critics rested their weary heads on a bed of familiarity. However, New Morning shares rent with the critic-baiting hodgepodge of Self Portrait. There were songs like “Winterlude” featuring choruses of “winterlude, this dude thinks your fine.” The tongue was still firmly in cheek.
The true beauty of the Bootleg Series is the opportunity it affords for re-evaluation of the Dylan discography and no period more desperately needed a new dissection than 1969-1971. Disc 1 opener “Went to See the Gypsy” (Demo Version) at first scans as a turgid recounting of Dylan’s meeting of Elvis Presley. However, lines preoccupied by pretty girls dancing in lobbies shouting to “go see the gypsy” assure this is no straightforward autobiographical retelling. The song’s bridge poignantly conveys Dylan’s state-of-mind at the time, “the lights were on the river, shining from outside, I contemplated every move or at least I tried.” Even the missteps of a high-profile artist like Dylan become calculated.
“Spanish Is the Loving Tongue” and “I Threw It All Away” evince a blend of two Dylan strands, winsome folk melodies intertwining with the more surreal lyrics of his “rock” period. “Nights go a flyin,” in the carefully considered piano playing of the former, while the latter finds Dylan cradling mountains in the palm of his hand. “Love is all there is,” he confesses. In all its glory love can still beating hearts and stop time; thrown away it ensures agony.
Dylan is in full-flight on the traditional folk tunes, the jaunty “Railroad Bill” sees the harmonica return and Dylan rambles in a way he hadn’t since ’63’s The Freewheelin Bob Dylan. The ancient “Pretty Saro” is reinvigorated; Dylan’s shy warbling adeptly reflecting the title figure resting “down in some lonesome valley.” The previously unreleased “House Carpenter” is a far-cry from the lightning take bottled up on the Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. Dylan outran the spirit on the water in the earlier version; here he and a specter walk side-by-side. “Days of ’49” is similarly haunted, Dylan playing the ghost “Tom Moore from the bummer shore”. If the “House Carpenter” was unfairly forsaken, the “ginsot” Moore and his “jolly saucy crew” receive their just desserts. The Dylan songbook is lousy with tragic characters (“Hurricane”, “Catfish”, “Blind Willie McTell”) “repining” the glory years, and few look to the past as longingly as Tom Moore.
The much maligned Isle of Wight recordings (Dylan would scrap a concert album) are re-contextualized on the second disc. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”s country waltz only skirts the edges of the masterpieces Dylan and The Band would paint on 1975’s The Basement Tapes. A herky-jerky “Highway 61 Revisited” finds Robbie Robertson’s guitar going in and out of gallop, while Levon Helm’s drum-set drops out of frame to spotlight crucial lines. The concert doesn’t provoke in the same way Live 1966’s electric half did, however its laconic country grooves reward just the same.
Many cuts here find success in addition by subtraction; tracks like “If Not For You” (Alternate Version) tip the scales in the other direction. A redolent violin part tiptoes on a snow covered rooftop while Dylan waits for the promise of his love’s spring to begin the melting. His is a world where an absence of love cause robins to cease their singing. Sleepless nights are spent desperately trying to see the morning light. We lose sight of what’s right in front of us when love vanishes and on “If Not For You” Dylan’s gone blind.
Another Self Portrait arguably saves the best for last, a piano demo version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. Dylan’s weathered vocals evoke “a long hard climb”, one laboring from the Mesabi Iron Range of Hibbing, Minnesota to the pinnacle of popular music. He retraces Roman footsteps until he and his “old Victrola” are reunited and spends hours inside the Coliseum in the name of “wasting time.” “Someday, everything is gonna be diff’rent when I paint my masterpiece,” he belts near the end. Self-Portrait is certainly “different”, in terms of audience-shedding it sits comfortably alongside: Metal Machine Music, In Utero, Kid A, and Yeezus in the pantheon. If Self-Portrait is any kind of a painting, it’s an abstraction. This edition of the Bootleg Series reveals a rudimentary canvas to be an ornately crafted work. A piercing shrill curls into a pleasing rhapsody. The voice of a generation hadn’t gone mute, it was singing in a tone no one had heard before.