Bob Dylan
Self Portrait
Columbia, 1970
reviewer: clement coleman

Greil Marcus, the world's leading arbiter on Dylan-ness, asked pointedly in the opening line of his Rolling Stone review of Self Portrait: "What is this shit?" Dylan's ability to outfox the beards in 1965 by utilizing that oh-so trendy invention known as electricity was a riot to the hipsters. And Dylan had proceeded to duck and weave throughout the decade, presumably "finding a voice" or "discovering himself" or what have you. He'd over-hauled lo-fidelity in Big Pink (where he'd taught Robbie Robertson the art of song writing)--hell he taught everyone all the way up to and including the Fab Four that they could a) write for themselves (better $$$) and b) write from themselves (see "Hide Your Love Away," Help 1965). Dylan peaked along with the rest in 1967, by which point he'd released Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61, Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. These three albums are Dylan's ultra-crown, but he wasn't absolutely emptied after their completion. And to the culture at large, Dylan's every tic was ripe for de-coding.

So with subsequent long players, Dylan began to confuse even those in the know. Nashville Skylines' mellow country ways were fine, especially in the wake of the Byrds' own Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), but Dylan's calm mentality and soft, round voice must be hiding something, right? Dylan puts everyone on guard. Rumor had it that John Wesley Harding (1967) had over a hundred Biblical references! What's he trying to pull on us?

The final blow came in 1970, when Dylan released this double LP of covers, stylistic sprawls, live cuts, and more. The hipsters couldn't stomach the joke any longer. Outfoxed, pissed off and wary, they denounced Self Portrait with a million cries of "What is this shit!?!?" But what if it wasn't just a big joke? What if Dylan really meant it? What if Robert Zimmerman had spent all that energy really trying to find himself or his voice? What if he plugged in not to upset the beards, but because he really dug Little Richard and The Byrds? Maybe Dylan was an artist, one of the great artists of the decade, and maybe after all that work he wanted to lay out a mellow manifesto of his interests and influences. Something that wasn't coded at all, but that just mildly and pleasantly voiced all the voices that spoke to and through him? The first Dylan album that didn't have its guard up, and nobody got it. The first Dylan album that you didn't have to "get," and nobody got it.

Self Portrait is a lovely album to share a bottle of wine over, to stare at the moon by. It tiptoes through the genres, dipping equally into such realms as American folk, 20th Century American showtune, and covers of such Dylan contemporaries as Paul Simon and Gordon Lightfoot respectively ("The Boxer" and "In the Early Morning Rain"). Several cuts from the Basement Tapes are unearthed, and several new Dylan songs are here. This is not an album that bears much scrutiny, and this is not an album that asks to be de-coded. But that is precisely why it is a great Dylan record. Did anyone really care what all that Blonde on Blonde music was about? Dylan gave his audience heaps of mystery and drama for sure, but mostly he brought a spirit of invention to the floor. He rarely repeated himself, and he rarely got boring. Self Portrait may be mellow, but it's a respite from the sturm and drang of previous efforts. And if you really enjoy Dylan for the indecipherable clues, then Self Portrait can be enjoyed as a sky full of constellations that Dylan sails under, as all the influences both past and present that light up his path.

1. All the Tired Horses
2. Alberta #1
3. I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know
4. Days of '49
5. Early Morning Rain
6. In Search of Little Sadie
7. Let It Be Me
8. Little Sadie
9. Woogie Boogie
10. Belle Isle
11. Living the Blues
12. Like a Rolling Stone
13. Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight)
14. Gotta Travel On
15. Blue Moon
16. The Boxer
17. The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)
18. Take Me as I Am (Or Let Me Go)
19. Take a Message to Mary
20. It Hurts Me Too
21. Minstrel Boy
22. She Belongs to Me
23. Wigwam
24. Alberta #2