For a long time I would pull out Dylan’s album Self Portrait every few years and give it another listen, thinking, “I bet this is better than I remember it — I bet it’s a masterpiece waiting to be rediscovered.” It never was — it was just a quirky, interesting album from a quirky, interesting artist, with a lot of fine tracks and lot of less than fine tracks that didn’t quite add up to a coherent work.
I’ve just listened to it again, in the remastered version included in the deluxe edition of the new Dylan box set Another Self Portrait, which collects a bunch of songs from the Self Portrait sessions, outtakes and stripped-down versions of songs on the album, before the overdubs that were added for the commercial release.
After hearing Another Self Portrait, Self Portrait feels different to me now, because I can see where it came from — an experiment in reinvention by an artist who had reached several dead ends in his short career. Some of the dead ends were masterpieces, like Blonde On Blonde, which couldn’t be repeated, some were experiments, like John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, which didn’t get Dylan quite where he wanted to go.
Once you stop expecting coherence from Self Portrait, the album takes flight, in its very incoherence, in the earnestness of the restless search it represents. The vocal performances are consistently riveting, even when they fall short of what they’re aiming for. The song selection is fascinating, even if it doesn’t amount to a vision, much less a musical self portrait of Dylan.
It remains quirky and interesting, but is also brilliant in its way, and utterly delightful. It dismayed those who thought it might represent where Dylan had arrived, and might remain, in 1970, but Dylan never really arrives anywhere. He might stop in Carbondale, just to fuck with your mind — Carbondale! — but he keeps on going. His work is always about the next stop on the line.
Every time he reaches what just has to be the end of the tracks, he consults his ghostly railroad timetable and finds a forgotten spur line that leads him somewhere else. We couldn’t have been expected to trust in this in 1970, but now we know better — we know we can hop the Dylan freight anywhere and end up where we wanted to go all along, if we’d only known the way.
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