CK Retro Review: Self Portrait by Bob Dylan

Only Bob Dylan can tell you his exact motivation for 1970’s Self Portrait, a double-album collection of odds and sods so bizarrely random and maddeningly inconsistent that even his most ardent supporters were left scratching their heads. It still mystifies and intrigues to this day. Here is a song-by-song review.

ONE STAR

24. “In Search of Little Sadie”- The narrator may have found Little Sadie and shot her down, but Dylan certainly never finds the right feel for the arrangement here. This schizophrenic reading of the song is almost so bad it’s good, but not quite.

23. “Little Sadie”- She apparently escaped the first murder attempt, but “Little Sadie” gets it again in this version, which makes the dubious trade-off of being saner than “In Search Of Little Sadie” in favor of being more boring.

TWO STARS

22. “Early Mornin’ Rain”- The great Gordon Lightfoot deserved better than the soporific reading of this oft-covered hit. Dylan doesn’t seem to know what to make of the material here.

21. “Gotta Travel On”- The critique of Self Portrait that probably sticks the most after all these years is the fact that there is so much about it that is capable but uninspired. Most of us would prefer Dylan trying hard and failing, rather than, as he does on this song, mailing it in.

20. “Blue Moon”- For fans listening to the album for the first time back in 1970, I would guess that this was the point where rage started to kick in. Once Dylan turns in a somnambulant reading of this evergreen, there is just no hope for Self Portrait to turn itself around and become anything more than a bumpy curiosity.

19. “Woogie Boogie”- Bob cuts his band loose on some basic chord changes in this piano-driven instrumental. There’s nothing wrong with it, but just about any bunch of professional musicians could have managed it.

18. “The Boxer”- One of the more befuddling moments in the Dylan oeuvre. First of all, the bluegrass rendering undercuts the song’s grand melancholy. Then there’s the self-harmonizing, which sounds like Dylan had a time machine which allowed him to access both his smooth Nashville Skyline croon and his gravelly rasp that he utilized for just about every part of his career. At least it’s crazy enough to be semi-interesting.

17. “Take Me As I Am”- Another country ballad, which is rendered a bit less artfully than “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.”

16. “Alberta #2”-The harmonica helps to make up for the overdone female vocals, but overall this one is a bit weaker than “Alberta #1. The fact that it’s entirely forgettable makes this in a way a fitting closer to the album.

THREE STARS

15. “Belle Isle”- It’s a pretty Celtic melody and a sweet tale, but Dylan’s vocal wobbles like a top at the end of its spin. It’s got just enough charm to get by though, certainly better than some of the other clunkers on the album.

14. “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know”- Dylan has contended that many of the songs on Self Portrait were essentially warm-up material for the Nashville Skyline sessions. In this case, the band locks into the classic country sound and Bob sings it tenderly, making this one of the more effective covers on the album, even if the song itself is a bit by-the-numbers.

13. “She Belongs To Me”- The live take on this classic from Bringing It All Back Home is a bit too busy, as if The Band didn’t know quite what to do with Dylan’s original laid-back take. Still a great song though.

12. “Alberta #1”- There is a nice little swing that the instrumentalists achieve on this rearranged traditional. Dylan’s voice loses some of the Nashville Skyline luster on the track, and that actually fits the bluesy material quite well. Pleasant if inconsequential.

11. “Let It Be Me”- Dylan does better by The Everly Brothers elsewhere on the album. He sings this classic like Elvis for some unexplained reason. It’s a good thing that the song is so fine that it’s hard to completely butcher.

10. “Living The Blues”- It sounds like Hank Williams by way of Fats Domino. Dylan sings it with a twinkle in his eye and an aching in his heart, and it rambles genially enough to be one of the album’s more worthy tracks, even if it would rank near the bottom of the similarly country-tinged material on Nashville Skyline.

9.“Minstrel Boy”- An oddity among Dylan songs in that it’s only official release came in a live version, in this case one taken from The Isle Of Wight performance with The Band. It’s certainly has a Basement Tapes vibe, benefiting from The Band’s inimitable ability to create arrangements which lope along in such a way that they practically hang suspended in the air. The harmonies in the refrain provide the most memorable moments.

8. “All The Tired Horses”- Only Dylan would start off an album titled Self Portrait with a song where the only vocals featured aren’t his. I actually like the swirling strings here. It has always sounded to me like the start of some concept album that Bob never got around to writing.

7. “Like A Rolling Stone”- It takes some effort to turn this incendiary track into a relatively pedestrian live number. Yet that’s what Bob and The Band manage in this live take of his most well-known song. Dylan’s mangling of those famous words is the main culprit, but the arrangement neuters the song as well.

6. “Wigwam”- It’s fun to think of the fact that Dylan, rock’s ultimate wordsmith, released what was essentially an instrumental (save for some “la-la’s” and other incantations by Bob) as a single in 1970 and actually hit #41 in the charts. (Too bad it didn’t do one better; it would have been fun hearing Casey Kasem describe it.) The languorous, horn-filled groove really grows on you after a while.

5. “Take A Message To Mary”- Resting somewhere between folk-rock and pure country, Dylan’s version of this Everly Brothers’ hit written by Felice And Boudleaux Bryant nicely serves the dark tale of an outlaw trying to deceive his love about his true fate.

4. “It Hurts Me Too”- Dylan re-wrote the lyrics to this bluesy ballad from the original by Tampa Red, but what makes this stand out from some of the other wrongheaded covers on Self Portrait is that the spare, acoustic approach allows the song some breathing room.

FOUR STARS

3. “Days Of ‘49”- He seems to fumble the words at times as the song goes on, which can be frustrating, but Dylan sounds energized and feisty on this recording, which immediately distinguishes this from much of the album. It’s a neat little song choice too, a chronicle of a rough-hewn prospector looking back on the Gold Rush days. The band gives it a tense reading which even elicits some surprised exhortations from Bob.

2. “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo)”- One of Dylan’s most enigmatic songs is given a fiery live reading with The Band at the Isle Of Wight concert in 1969. Robbie Robertson’s searing solo is the exclamation point, while Levon Helm’s shouts in the chorus provide much of the heart. Dylan also gives a spirited performance, which, compared to the listless vocal on “Like A Rolling Stone,” shows that his enthusiasm at the time was mostly reserved for the more offbeat material.

FIVE STARS

1. “Copper Kettle”- Here is a case when the imperfections in Dylan’s vocal actually add to the power of his interpretation, yielding just the right amount of grit to fit his character. This is a really beautiful rendering of a moonshiner’s how-to manual, the strings soaring above Bob’s powerful and urgent vocals in moving fashion. The standout by far and away.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238

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8 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Self Portrait by Bob Dylan”

  1. Baggy says:

    Ha Ha , that’s what I love about Bob , he’s so perverse. The distribution of your rankings is pretty similar to my own, reflecting a very patchy oddity, but not without some moments of pleasure. But In Search Of Little Sadie is my favourite track, so random it is inspired.

    And two great recording from the Isle of Wight – Minstrel Boy and Quinn the Eskimo – alongside two real duffers. LARS in particular is painful beyond belief, I can’t hear how this is the 7th best track here.

    Classic Bob, we can agree there is some good stuff on here, we just can’t agree which it is !

    • senorcno says:

      I think that album is totally misunderstood and underrated. It`s not great, it`s not bad it’s more like Monty Python – something completely different. And I like it .

      • countdownkid says:

        Interesting way to take it. I don’t doubt that it’s different, but just because something is different doesn’t mean its good. And I don’t think it’s misunderstood that much anymore, in that most Dylan followers understand he was trying to shake off the shackles of expectations with it. I think the best way to take it, and Dylan said this once, is as his own homemade bootleg. If it had been an actual bootleg, people would have forgiven the goofier moments and gravitated to the good stuff. When people spend money on it though, they have the right to expect honest effort, and I’m not sure you can say that Dylan gives it on all, or even most, of these songs.

    • countdownkid says:

      The difficult thing about rating LARS is that it’s still one of his finest songs, and that song is still in there, even when Dylan butchers the words and when the arrangement neuters some of its inherent power. But I can see your point.

      • Colm McCloskey says:

        To my ears, there is not a weak moment in Self Portrait. Imperfections, yes, but the fundamental drive of this album is concerned with the drawing together of fragmentations, bits and pieces, broken vocals and disharmonies that ultimately create a unified whole. This American Songbook resonated with my 19 year old self and gave me an insight into the essence of Dylan’s artistry that remains with me today, 40 odd years later.
        Dylan had picked his broken self up from the motor bike and amphetamine crashes of the 60s and recreated a new transcendant Dylan whose working material was the sub- conscience, intuition and religion. He understood that LARS’s power lay not in the attraction of a hate and revenge filled lyric. Rather, the song was loved because antithetically speaking the song turned on itself and people found compassion in singing the chorus against themselves.They knew how it felt “to be on their own”.
        Bob Dylan is not Tin Pan Alley or a Song and Dance Man, that’s why when I hear ‘Blue Moon’ I am immersed in a terrain of love and longing envisaged by Carl Jung rather than Rogers and Hart.

  2. AndyF says:

    All I can say is, glad you got this one out of the way.

  3. Soren says:

    I love this album, and disagree with many of your critiscms, I am sorry you miss the joy of this album…Hard luck to you.

    • countdownkid says:

      I don’t know if I miss the joy of it, but I do think much of it is a bit dull, which I think is what infuriates a lot of Dylan fans about it. But I recognize it does has its defenders.


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