Did Bob Dylan invent the selfie?
No, but he did put out a double LP called Self Portrait in 1970 that still ranks as one of his most inscrutable releases. It was the first true misstep in a career that by then had already been long on about-faces and surprises, but short on fallibility.
Never before had he produced such a head-scratching moment, with the greatest songwriter of his time packing an album with other people's songs - Why bother covering Paul Simon's "The Boxer"? Why? - often saturated in overdubbed strings. The critical reaction was crystalized by Greil Marcus, who famously greeted the unaccountably strange collection in his Rolling Stone review with the words: "What is this s*&#?"
With Self Portrait, the always shape-shifting Dylan did have a point to make: Something about how the self is made up of accumulated experiences and appropriation of other people's creations, not just ones that are born independently from one's own imagination. As Wilmington's own David Bromberg, who played on the sessions, says in the promo video below, "I always thought he called it Self Portrait because it was the music he came out of."
But while Dylan may have legitimately been trying to express himself on Self Portrait, albeit in an oddly impersonal way, the sessions didn't produce an album that any fan would put near the top of his list of Bob Dylan albums they'd actually want to listen to - then or now.
He started to inch his way back into people's hearts with New Morning, however, which was released just four months later. And before long he got it back together with a mid-1970s winning streak that included the underrated Planet Waves in 1973 and the acknowledged masterpiece Blood on the Tracks in 1975.
But now, 43 years later, Dylan has Another Self Portrait (1969-71): The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 (Legacy *** 1/2). It's a two CD set full of outtakes, alternates and pared down versions stripped of wretched excess. There's also a smattering of live material drawn from the era of both Self Portrait and New Morning on the set, which comes out today.
That original SP album sported a selfie painted by Dylan on its cover, a close-up head shot done in the style that he also used for the group portrait on The Band's 1968 Music From Big Pink. The new Another Self Portrait also has a Dylan selfie on the cover, and like the music within, it's a more pleasing and commanding depiction than the original. The head shot may not be immediately recognizable as the Dylan we know, but both artist and subject come across composed and sure of themselves in this visual rendering, unlike the amorphous, ill defined character on the orginal cover.
That holds true for the 35 songs inside, as well. One of the things that makes the new collection work is that while the Dylan of 1970 took his counterculture fan base by unpleasant surprise, the idea of mixing his own songs like "Went To See The Gypsy" and "If Not For You" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece" (which closes the collection as a lovely solo piano demo) with a wide range of source material seems perfectly in keeping with the Dylan we know today.
As liner note writer Michael Simmons points out, Dylan told Jon Pareles of the New York Times in 1997, "These old songs are my lexicon and prayer book. All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from "Let Me Rest On That Peaceful Mountain" to "Keep On The Sunny Side." You can find all my philosophy in those old songs." For the latter day Dylan of the Neverending Tour and 1990s covers albums Good As Been To You and World Gone Wrong as well as sets of originals like Modern Times and Together Through Life, his own songs and those from the folk tradition are part of one living breathing changeable entity. It's all a source of sustenance and wisdom that he pieces together as he sees fit, all usable parts in an ongoing musical life project.
It helps too, that while we've gotten used to the Bard singing with an almost entirely rotted voice, that he once possessed a more fleshed out, less mannered instrument. Even then people said he couldn't sing, but he sounds a whole lot younger then, on unreleased tracks likes "Pretty Faro" and live cuts like a red hot "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," from the Isle of Wight festival in 1969 with The Band. He's older than that now.
That "Baby" - very different than the becalmed one on John Wesley Harding - is a reminder that Dylan has been changing up his beloved studio recordings on stage for over four decades. And the multiple approaches he took to his own compositions like "Time Passes Slowly" and folk tunes like "Little Sadie," which appears here both under that title and in a tweaked take called "In Search of Little Sadie," shows that he likely has a backlog of radically reinterpreted spins on his own songs to refer to when he wants to confuse his fans with reworked versions of revered classics which are wholly unrecognizable live until the chorus arrives.
Then, now and always, Dylan has had multiples selves to choose from in presenting himself to his public. With the original Self Portrait he picked one that jarred true believers, which was surely part of his intention. That album seems even stranger in retrospect, considering how much superior material he was sitting on and chose not to release. But while such perverse decision making would by truly shocking coming from another artist, in this case there's only one word for it: Dylanesque.