Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Monday, 20 April 2015

10. Self Portrait (1970)

And so we get to Self Portrait, apparently so awful that the opening line of Rolling Stone magazine's 1970 review asked "What is this shit?"  I'd never heard a note of it, so I entered this phase of the BobBox with a combination of excitement (I love a good, bad record) and trepidation.

Unlike the other double album Blonde On Blonde, both of the original discs are crammed onto a single CD, despite Self Portrait being around ten minutes longer.  I wonder why this didn't get the double-disc treatment.  Would it really have been such a waste of plastic?

It begins with a track named All The Wild Horses, an immediate WTF? moment.  If a pleasant, though baffling, three minutes of a female gospel chorus singing the same two lines is Bob trying to wrong-foot us, it does a good job.  Guitar and then rather syrupy strings build gradually into what turned into the earworm of the album for me. The rest of Self Portrait, recorded in NYC and Nashville by a cast of dozens, is made up of cover versions, re-worked traditional songs, live tracks and a few new originals.

Two of these new originals are instrumentals; Woogie Boogie is a nice little blues jam and Wigwam is a guitar and piano number overdubbed with some brass and those strings again. Actually, Wigwam isn't entirely instrumental if you count Dylan der-der-der-ing over the top.  After a while he la-da-da-dees a bit as well.  Apparently it was released as a single in some countries and did quite well.  Hmm.  The other original, Living The Blues, is just brilliant, even with its Andrews Sisters-style backing vocals.

I'm not sure what was going on in Dylan's mind with all these overdubs.  Some really quite good songs are kind of spoiled by this unnecessary Nashville treacle.  I could have done without the Disney backing vocals on Take Me As I Am Or Let Me Go, an otherwise very pleasant cover where Bob employs his Nashville Skyline voice and is accompanied by some lovely steel and piano.  His version of Gordon Lightfoot's Early Morning Rain is happily overdub-free, and he sings in a voice that's halfway between The Croon and The Whine, which works really well.  Cautionary tale I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know is Dylan channelling Jim Reeves.

My favourite two covers are probably the most polarising ones on the whole record.  Why Bob decided to cover Simon & Garfunkel's The Boxer isn't clear.  Maybe he just really likes the song, or perhaps it's a genuine piss-take, but here he 'harmonises' with himself in two different voices, not very well synchronised so that he's interrupting himself quite a bit.  Aside from the fact that it's a difficult song to ruin, the guitar playing is great, and I find the whole thing playful, charming and amusing.  Ironically, Self Portrait knocked Bridge Over Troubled Water off the no.1 spot on release, albeit only for a week.  Also getting the thumbs up from me immediately was Blue Moon, sung in his NS croon, although it would have been better without those darn b/vs!

Dylan also takes on a couple of Everly Brothers songs; the much-covered Let It Be Me and a fairly cheerful arrangement of the mournful Take A Message To Mary.  The thing about lots of these cover versions, and indeed much of Self Portrait, is that they seem half-baked, a bit "that'll do", almost as if they're rehearsal takes which have then been subjected to some perfunctory overdubs.  There's been much speculation about the intentions behind SP, several put forward by the man himself: material designed to get fans off his back / to fulfill contractual obligations at a time of low creativity / a big old joke / an attempt to make his own 'bootleg' / or simply that this is what he felt like recording at the time.  It's probably a bit of everything, but I like the idea that he's making his own 'official' bootleg; a cobbled together collection of live tracks, covers and deliberately recorded 'rehearsal' takes.  It certainly makes sense when I listen to the album in one go (which I've done several times over the last week) and it's actually more enjoyable when listening with this notion in mind.

There are half a dozen songs here that Wikipedia describes as "Trad.", even though Dylan takes credit for some of them (not exactly a new thing for him I suppose).  Both Alberta and Little Sadie are represented by two versions each for reasons best known to Bob.  There's not a huge difference between Alberta nos.1 and 2, although the second is more upbeat and if pushed I'd say is the best.  The vocals are all over the place on In Search of Little Sadie, seemingly deliberately, and I much prefer the other version.  High points are the superb ode to moonshine Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight) and the shakily-sung Belle Isle, but best of all is gold rush ballad Days of '49, which as well as suiting Dylan down to the ground, also boasts some wonderfully farty bass harmonica.

The four live tracks recorded at 1969's Isle of Wight Festival have come in for some criticism for being sub-par in terms of sound quality and performance.  Luckily I have no problems with ramshackle playing, varying production values and out of tune singing (I'm a Neil Young fan after all!) so for me tracks like the hugely enjoyable Minstrel Boy and The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo) are not only an interesting snapshot, but also have an agreeable ragged glory (pun intended).

I enjoyed this album much more than I expected to.  Yes it's a hodge-podge of material, but perhaps by not being the "self portrait" his fans were expecting, they felt that they were losing him in some way, which makes the harshness of the criticism sort of understandable.  Instead, it's a series of sketches and doodles reflecting Dylan's love of American music; blues, gospel, country, traditional and folk.  Perhaps what I'd heard about it gave me low expectations, making me like it more, but I can definitely see myself picking this out for an evening's listen on many a future occasion.

*****BobBox price check***** - £144.44 (free postage)
Discogs - from £108.30
Spin CDs - £119.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99

All prices correct on 20/04/2015

No comments:

Post a Comment