06 January, 2009

anyone who tells you they love Bob Dylan's 'self-portrait' is a liar.

so, twice in as many days, two different folks tell me they really, really, really love Self Portrait. Whenever I hear this, my very gut response is, “really? Is this a joke or something?” I mean, I really don’t intend any offense. I just have a hard time grasping that. It’s almost always one of you whose musical aesthetic I admire, too. I just really have to get this off the old chest …

Yeah, I know you’re out there. Every now and then, that “What’s your favorite Dylan album?” game comes up and one of you invariably says something to the effect of, “well, actually, I really like Self-Portrait.” So, OK, maybe you do like the album, for whatever reason, but is it really one of your favorites? I mean, out of Bob’s nearly 60 releases, is this one really in the same zip code-errrrrr-region as, say Blood on the Tracks or Blonde on Blonde or even, oh, Nashville Skyline? Shot of Love? Freewheelin’?

Again, I’m sure each Self-Portrait champion has his/her reasons, and I’ll get into those in a paragraph or so, but, really? I mean, preferring SP to the more, uh, agreed upon ‘favorites’ is sort of like preferring Coupling after Richard Coyle left the show, or preferring Archie Bunker’s Place to All in the Family. Isn’t it?

So, with Self-Portrait, Mr. Dylan attempts to string together a double-length set of country standards with countrified reworks of some earlier biggies (“She Belongs to Me,” “Like a Rolling Stone”). Most notable, though not for its quality, IMO, is a rendition of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” in which Nashville Skyline Bob sings an overdubbed duet with raspy-voiced, ‘61-’67 Bob. There are a couple nice moments among the mess, sure, but every rough has its diamond …


why I don’t think Self-Portrait is great

Alright … note, I didn’t say I ‘detest’ or even ‘dislike’ the album. I’m just saying it’s probably toward the bottom of the pile. I mean, if you put out 57 of anything, you’re bound to have a few duds, right?

Chronologically, Self-Portrait is bookended by a very solid 1961-69 canon. Sure, Nashville Skyline doesn’t shine as bright as the albums preceding it, but it’s still a solid collection with a few really great songs (“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” hops to mind). On the other side, a couple years off, Dylan puts out Blood on the Tracks and Desire and then his string of “gospel” albums, all of which crush Self-Portrait like a grape. Sure, Shot of Love is no Blood on the Tracks, but the gospel albums still hold their own, are much more enjoyable to sit through. Really, I’ve sat through all of them.


who really thinks Self-Portrait is so great???

Good question, Scott. I’ve divvied it into a two or three groups. Here goes …


1. David Zimmerman, Sara, Jesse, Anna, Samuel, Jakob Dylan, et al ….

I guess if your family won’t support you, nobody will. Then again, I don’t know any of these folks, so I haven’t been able to ask any of them directly. Shrug.


2. The Dylan completist/absolutist.

You know who you are. You’re almost always male. You own all 57 Dylan releases on vinyl, CD, cassette, 8-track and ¼-inch reel (on top of the burned remixes of your favorite albums peppered with your favorite “alternate takes”). Nothing Bob has done, does or will do was, is or will be wrong. On your wall is a near-naked icon of Bob hanging on a crucifix. You spend your spare time uploading bootlegs of Renaldo and Clara and Eat the Document to YouTube. You have not had a date since the Reagan years.


My advice: embrace your inner Blonde on Blonde. Go outside. Discover Lavalife. Visit the iTunes store & check out music by artists filed under A-C and E-Z.


3. The music snob (or did you hear the one about the indie-rocker?).

Soooooo, the joke goes something like this:

Jokerman: Hey, didja hear the one about the indie-rocker?
Straightman: No. Do tell me about the indie-rocker.
Jokerman (voice muffled, staring at shoes): Nevermind.

This is an archetype exemplified by the Jack Black/Barry character in the film/book, High Fidelity. His/her only purpose in life is to out-obscure his/her peers. To this ilk, admitting to like something enjoyed by any semblance of the masses is to concede everything one has worked at in life. He/she has likely never actually gotten into half of the shit they claim to dig, but if they let on, it would ruin everything they represent. How plebian to hold Highway 61 Revisited in such lofty esteem. Have you even heard “In Search of Little Sadie?” I mean, if you don’t know, I’m not gonna tell you, but, hell, “All the Tired Horses?” Come on, that’s light years beyond The Basement Tapes.

My advice: repeat, as often as necessary: It’s alright to like things other people like. Blood on the Tracks is very good.


What I actually *like* about Self-Portrait

OK. There are a couple good moments. It’s a good reference piece. It’s groovy to throw this version of “The Boxer” or “Like a Rolling Stone” into a party shuffle.

So-o-o-o-o-oooooooooo ...

The argument you’ll hear in favor of the album is that it represents a departure for the artist. But, come on, we’re talking about a dude who departs a good bit with each release. I appreciate the “departure” take. I really do.

My take? I think Bob was burnt out for ideas, had a contractual obligation to fill and phoned in a big, old turd.

Then again, I’m a guy who digs the music of Yoko Ono. No, really.

1 comment:

Jesus Crisis said...

Great blog, man!

Back in the day, I made three 90 minute cassettes of my favorite Dylan songs and the only Self Portrait track that made it onto one of them was "Alberta #1."