Monday, September 2, 2013

Bob Dylan: Bootleg Series, Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)


A funny thing happens early on in Another Self Portrait, the latest edition to Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, which covers a short but fruitful period from 1969 to 1971. There’s something curious about the second song in this huge, 35-track collection. It’s “Little Sadie”, a song that pops up in more than one version in the original 1970 album Self Portrait. The version here, not the only in this collection either, is oddly revealing. It starts with Dylan instructing those in the studio, “Let’s just run this one,” he says. He is plain spoken and direct. From there, he launches into a dusty acoustic take on the old murder ballad, but his voice is curled and sweet at the edges, nothing like his speaking voice at the beginning of the track and very much like the voice we hear all over Nashville Skyline.

This one shift in voice isn’t all that revelatory. But what is curious is what happens as the song goes on. As we shift into the chorus and the second verse, Dylan drops the Nashville curl in favor of his usual nasal bleat. In other words, in this take of “Little Sadie”, his performing persona is fluid, always changing, comprising the guy in charge of the studio, the hopeful country troubadour, and the clear-eyed, challenging singer-songwriter everyone who had followed Dylan through the ‘60s knew. He is, in this one two-minute take, impossible to pin down.

So it goes with the seemingly flippant—or doubly flippant, considering the first album with this title—Another Self Portrait. The original double album, Self Portrait, was a chance for Dylan to throw everything at us at once, to leave us puzzled. Hence the infamous “What is this shit?” response. People do forget, though, that the album still sold three million copies, even if it was a critical curiosity, and critics have begun backpedalling on the dubious quality of the huge, uneven record. It is an album with its merits, to be sure, but it also is bookended by 1969’s Nashville Skyline and 1970’s New Morning, two albums that are shorter, more palatable, and yet somehow overshadowed by the infamous nature of Self Portrait.

This collection of outtakes, alternate versions, and demos seeks to capture the time in which all these albums were recorded as a particular fit of inspiration. Following Dylan’s motorcycle accident in 1966, these albums were a way to move away from the protesting folk singer of the early ‘60s or the reactionary, misunderstood folk-rock genius he morphed into during the middle of the decade. In the late-‘60s and early-‘70s, Dylan was taking a much sweeter, calmer approach to looking at tradition in song, and the results here are often fascinating and revealing.

But they don’t reveal him, necessarily. The purpose of the self portrait, Dylan knew well, is not to see the artist, but to see something in the process, in the product itself. And so these songs don’t, as we might now expect, tell us anything about Dylan himself—see again that shifty voice on “Little Sadie”—but they do show us different sides of his persona and his songs. Particularly striking on Another Self Portrait is the unabashedly romantic vein that runs through these songs. Dylan’s most striking empathy was always social, intellectual, political. Here, though, he strikes a much more personal chord not with words but with the way he emotes them. The stripped down version of “Days of ‘49” barely outdoes the already excellent take from Self Portrait by championing his weary, graveled voice in the track. The opening version of “Went to See the Gypsy” is far more stripped down than the country-funk version on New Morning and, in turn, reveals some of the desperation and searching inherent in the track.

There’s also the laid-bare romance of piano track “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” or standout “This Evening So Soon”—which tells the fated tale of a man about to die—that balances what the narrator wants with what we know he will lose. The collection sometimes digs into straight ahead romance, but isn’t afraid of digging into the delusion that it can sometimes become. “Wallflower” is achingly earnest in its love, until the narrator, begging the title character to dance with him, finally admits “I’m sad and lonely too / Wallflower, wallflower, take a chance on me / I’m falling in love with you.” He, of course, is not, but is projecting onto to some poor girl he doesn’t know. The insight is the kind of striking observation we expect from Dylan, but it doesn’t taint the more pure romance of these other tracks; rather it sets them in stark contrast.

Of course, Dylan is still a master of genre and message here. The violin heavy version of “If Not For You” is brilliantly bittersweet. “Only a Hobo” jumps right past campfire quaintness and digs into trashfire-beneath-the-underpass catharsis. The version of “Highway 61 Revisited”, recorded with the Band at as Isle of Wight show in 1969, is sweetly funky, but still hits all the song’s snarling highlights. The set closes with a demo take of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, a smartly incomplete finish to a set that presents the possibility of a complete picture of this time in Dylan’s career. It’s Dylan and a piano, and he’s yearning for some end to isolation, for the girl to be there. “She promised she’d be right there with me,” he sings, “when I paint my masterpiece.” The song stretches from there to coliseums and beyond, but that pining for connection remains.

This desire for connection is a striking vein that runs through these songs—and the albums from which they come—mostly because the reason the albums were made, Self Portrait in particular, seemed to be to not only challenge his audience but to push it away, to deny fame and all its trammels. But it didn’t work. Each album charted better than Blonde on Blonde did. He couldn’t escape us, escape his influence, even as he tried to force us into working even harder to figure out what he was up to.

And if Self Portrait was a big thorny, uneven dose of song, and Nashville Skyline and New Morningexcellent but less challenging sets, Another Self Portrait falls in line with those same fates, but perhaps in mirror image. Nashville Skyline and New Morning succeeded in their pleasantness, but Self Portrait—despite being full of old songs, other people’s songs, songs that really weren’t Dylan’s—was undone not by carelessness but rather by too many versions of overworking those songs. To hear the versions here without overdubs, especially “Days of ‘49” and “Copper Kettle”, is to hear Dylan four decades ago hiding behind too much production. Another Self Portrait doesn’t always succeed either, but for a different reason. Versions here like “Working on a Guru” or “If Dogs Run Free” feel too safe by the numbers to be anything other than curiosities in his song catalog. Meanwhile extra versions of “Little Sadie” and “Went to See the Gypsy” that come up later in the collection feel too ragged, even under-thought, to do much more than show us how much better the other takes here, and on record, are.

This is another excellent addition to the Bootleg Series connection, one that reflects the period it represents while also complicating it. Of course we don’t know more about Bob Dylan for hearing these songs, but we do know more about the songs themselves. How they work, how they sometimes don’t, and how tweaking the performance can make their impact even deeper than we expected from one of our most consistent performers, even when this constant chameleon was aiming for inconsistency. After this period he didn’t record again for four years, and that’s always been seen as an absence, but maybe it was just space, time for him (and now, in retrospect, us) to digest all these twists and turns through the tradition of songwriting, through the seemingly reluctant path to fame of one Bob Dylan.

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