Oh, lighten up!

Sep 28, 2000
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:He's still Dylan, and he knows what he's doing even if we don't

Cons:Inconsistent, different, and...well....odd.

Ask most Dylan fans, and they'll tell you the same thing: Self-Portrait is an abomination. It was conceived in Gehenna. It stands with Mein Kampf as the ultimate blasphemy on the face of recorded media. The only people who like it are booger-eating, spouse-abusing, child-molesting, syphilitic monkeys with auditory nerve damage.

Please. I've never once heard an album that's as bad as Self-Portrait is supposed to be---and I've got most of Yoko Ono's CDs. So Self-Portrait isn't the masterpiece that, admittedly, every album he had released to that point had been; it's not the abysmal disaster it's reputed to be, either. Put simply, it's an album of straightahead country, as was its predecessor Nashville Skyline. Portrait has none of the delicacy or elegance of Skyline, but you know what? On first listen you realize that delicacy and elegance were exactly what Dylan was trying to avoid.

That description makes this album sound very strange, and make no mistake: it's easily the strangest album in Bob Dylan's catalogue. That much is obvious from the first track, "All the Tired Horses," which is a combination of acoustic guitar, organ, and a string section, with a female gospel trio endlessly repeating "All the tired horses in sun/how'm I supposed to get any riding done?" in harmony, like a mantra. It's an oddball turn for the most celebrated lyricist of the 20th century, but the strings are gorgeous, and something about the song draws you in, whether you want to be drawn or not.

Dylan's songs on Self-Portrait are a bit of a shock, even after "All the Tired Horses." Instead of the deeply personal poetry of his Sixties music, these 1970 pieces are mostly rambling bits of linear narrative, told in plain-spoken language rather than the intricate wordplay that we call "Dylanesque." It's everything a Dylan fan doesn't expect, but it's appropriate here for two reasons. Firstly, it's in the best country music tradition, which Dylan had been exploring since Blonde on Blonde in '66. Secondly, it's everything a Dylan fan doesn't expect: we are dealing with a man who has been trying to shed his "voice of a generation" mantle since it was given to him. This is simply his most radical attempt, and the fact is that it takes him away from everything he does best. Still, tracks like "Days of '49," "Belle Isle" and a rollicking honky-tonk version of "Like A Rolling Stone" are pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. "The Mighty Quinn (Quinn, the Eskimo)" is great, but it's a snippet from the Basement Tapes, a rock & roll song just doesn't belong on this country-flavored album.

Most notorious are the covers. "Oh, God! Bob Dylan doing someone else's songs? How could he, how could he? Doing standards? And (gasp) following in the footsteps of inferior songwriters!" Well, first of all, "inferior songwriters" is a very relative term when they include Gordon Lightfoot and Paul Simon. So he's not going to make anyone forget the original "Early Morning Rain" or "The Boxer" or "Let It Be Me." So what? He has some neat ideas for them; especially "Let It Be Me," which sounds a little like something off Van Morrison's Moondance. It's interesting to hear Dylan's reinterpretations of songs he admires, especially after so many people have reinterpreted his songs....And again, it's the last thing you'd expect from him.

All in all, Self-Portrait can be taken as an experiment with an entirely different approach to music from anything Dylan had ever done before, or since. The experiment is not quite a success, but it's not the godawful failure you've heard it is, either. Don't waste your time unraveling the mystery of why Bob Dylan does what Bob Dylan does; if you go in without expectations of a masterpiece and give it a chance, you'll find it's not half bad!

But they're right about Mein Kampf. It's horrible.

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