(Disclaimer: Those looking for an overall description of the album will find what they're looking for in the "Review Body" section. The section titled "Track Reviews" is meant only for those who want to read detailed descriptions of the songs, and they do not constitute the essence of this review. Lastly and most importantly, this review might not be written in the point of view of a Bob Dylan fan.)
Overall Score: 12/15
Best song: “Days of '49”
Worst song: “In Search of Little Sadie”
According to Wikipedia, the king of every website, Bob Dylan's Self Portrait was named the third worst album of all time by Jimmy Guterman and Owen O'Donnell in a 1991 book. Unfortunately, there's one fatal flaw with such a theory: This album has only good songs on it! How is it possible for an album with a bunch of good songs on it to be considered the third worst of all time?
Alright, perhaps I can sympathize with people who have a distaste for this album. After all, all of Dylan's releases prior to this point had either been groundbreaking or—if not—at least had an interesting and cohesive concept behind it. Self Portrait, on the other hand, is so all-over-the-place that it's really quite bizarre. For some of these songs, he sings in his classic Mr. Wheezebags voice, and in others, he uses that nasally country-crooner voice that was left over from Nashville Skyline. (In one instance, his cover of Simon & Garfunkel's “The Boxer,” we hear both versions of his voice in a frankly hilarious duet.) Some tracks were taken from a poorly recorded live concert with The Band that shows Dylan forgetting some of his own lyrics. And probably the worst offense of them all is that most of these songs are covers. We want originals, dang it!
But why complain when so many of the covers are excellent? Probably the most-maligned cover of them all is Rodger's and Hart's “Blue Moon,” but it's that sort of random weirdness that is exactly what Self Portrait is most entertaining for. ...And are you really going to deny that Dylan does a nice job covering it? His vocals are sweet and earnest, the instrumentation is nicely done, the melody is pretty. ...I like it. ...Maybe I even love it?
This album is like going to a party at Bob Dylan's house and he gives us a bag full of random party favors. Some of the objects inside are treasurable while others you might care so little about that you'll just give them to your dog to chew up in the backyard. Which songs you'll treasure and which songs you'll want to toss out were of little concern to Dylan. All the fun, really, is sorting through them and not knowing what you're going to pull out of the bag next. Most of the songs here are country-western covers, which makes this a nice companion piece to his previous album, Nashville Skyline. They're all well-chosen and a pleasure to listen to. “I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know,” “Early Mornin' Rain,” “Let it Be Me,” “Belle Isle,” “Copper Kettle,” “Take Me As I Am,” and “Take a Message to Mary” all have pretty melody, homely instrumentation, and an earnest vocal performance from Dylan.
He seems to have an odd liking for female backup singers and full string sections in this album, which I'm sure that some fans found a touch pill to swallow. Surely, that comes across as overblown, but even then, they're well-used. The opening number, “All the Tired Horses,” is one of the most despised in that respect. It's one of the few Dylan originals on this album, but it only consists of tightly harmonized female singers who sing the same line of melody and lyric over and over again while a string section sweeps around all over the place. ...I think I can understand the dismay of a Bob Dylan fan putting the album on their turntable for the first time, fresh from the mint, thinking that perhaps the manufacturers accidentally mixed the LPs with something else... But aren't those strings pretty?
My favorite moment of the album is undoubtedly “Days of '49,” an old folk cover in which Dylan sounds awesomely like a hardened old cowpoke singing about the rough old days. What I particularly like about that song is not just the catchy melody, but that really deeply rumbling instrument I hear popping in for the chorus. I'm not too sure what it is, but it's got attitude. There are also plenty of enjoyable blues covers in here, one of the highlights being the trusty old blues standard “It Hurts Me too.”
In interviews Dylan said one motivation behind releasing this album was that much of his work was being bootlegged at the time, and this was an effort to curb it. He realizes that this album was never too well received, but he points out that if the material were restricted to the bootlegging circuit, it probably would have generated plenty of quiet buzz over the years. When it would have inevitably seen its release in the Bootleg Series, it would have been probably to some acclaim. ...But of course, isn't it more interesting to listen to album album that's supposedly one of the worst ever released only to discover that it's actually quite good? Self Portrait is a solid collection of songs. Surely, some songs are hits and others are misses, but the vast majority are hits.
All the Tired Horses A
Wow... Dylan changed his voice in Nashville Skyline to sound like a high-pitched country crooner, but here, he's changed his voice so much that he sounds like a woman! ...OK, that's not Dylan singing at all. I suppose that's him conducting that full-on, sweeping string section that accompanies this song. The vocals aren't too complicated; perhaps there are about three women repeating the same lyric over and over “All the tired horses in the sun / How'm I supposed to get any ridin' done? / Hmm...” It sounds like it belongs in a 1950s Western or something! Not that it should be such a surprise to anyone, since Dylan was still riding high on his country-western phase. ...And it's a nice song, anyway. The melody repeats a lot, but I like it anyway. The women sing it beautifully. The sweeping string section is excellently arranged. This album is filled with mostly covers, but this one's original.
Alberta #4 A
This is a cover, though, credited to the wealthiest songwriter in history: Mr. Traditional. It's best known for being recorded by Lead Belly in 1940. And Dylan does an excellent version of it, giving us a nice, laid-back rhythm section. He's singing in his normal Mr. Wheezybags voice instead of the country-crooner tone he'd adopted in his previous album. He even treats us to some nice harmonica work! The back-up singers sound really good, and of course the melody is CATCHY. To be honest, it sounds like one of Dylan's own songs; I might have assumed as much if I weren't looking on Wikipedia. (I'm not much of a blues guy, so I'm unfamiliar with the original...)
I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know A-
This is a really good country song from 1953. ...Again, not that I'm specifically familiar with the original, but I'm familiar with this really nice cover version by Bob Dylan. He's singing in his goofy country-crooner voice again, and he actually sounds very beautiful singing that gorgeous melody. The instrumentation is nothing complicated, but it shouldn't be! A shuffley drum, dreamy slide guitar, arpeggiating acoustic guitars, more of those back-up singers. ...Mmmmm! (I read my original review of this album, and for some reason I hated the back-up singers!)
Days of '49 A+
Here is another cover, although I'm not terribly sure where it came from, but it sounds like an old Wild West tune. I don't think the song itself was notable enough to earn that A+, but it's Dylan's performance of it that pushes it over the end. It's that utter conviction I hear him snarling off the lyrics... He's even yelling some of these lyrics... (“My comrades they all loved me well, a jolly saucy crew / A few hard cases I will recall they all were brave and true / Like good old bricks they stood the kicks in the days of '49 / In the days of old, in the days of gold / How oft'times I repine for the days of old / When we dug up the gold, in the days of '49.”) ...And even more icing on the cake is that really dark and rumbly harmonica I hear in the chorus. It doesn't even know how cool it is. I love that drumming, too. ...Everything about it is great.
Early Mornin' Rain A-
Bob Dylan covering Gordon Lightfoot! ...The apocalypse is here!!!!!!!! ...In all seriousness, this is a very pretty song, and Dylan's giving an earnest vocal performance. He's not singing in his country-crooner voice, but he's still singing pleasantly and hitting all the notes. The melody is good, and it's orchestrated nicely with some light ivory tinkling, guitar strumming, and laid-back drumming. The harmonica is all over this, and it's another pure treat for anyone who likes to hear Dylan's harmonica playing...
In Search of Little Sadie B
So everyone who says this album is terrible, I might be able to concede to their opinions if only they're talking about this song. ...Where Dylan sounds like he's purposefully butchering an old song, singing it a bit too raucously with his torn vocals... and it sounds like he's frequently switching keys. ...On the other hand, I start liking the song quite a lot when he slows down the pace of it midway through when he gets a nice cowboy shuffle going.
Let it Be Me A
How can anyone seriously have lukewarm reactions to an album with songs like this in it? Granted, this is another cover, but it's a really good song, and I love Dylan's presentation of it. He's using his country-crooner voice again, which matches nicely dreamy female back-up singers, twinkly piano, and mid-tempo rhythm section. It seems like a very earnest cover version (I'm unfamiliar with the original), and it makes a great listen.
Little Sadie A-
Well... I guess they found Sadie! This is a much more normal version of the song that I'm assuming Dylan purposefully butchered two tracks ago. Now, it sounds like a quickly paced country song where those rapid bongo drums and acoustic guitars create a nice shuffle, and Dylan's torn vocals seem perfectly appropriate for such a song. The melody is actually pretty catchy, which is a bit of a difference from the earlier version of this song.
Boogie Woogie A-
I think this is another reason a lot of people hate this album: Whenever there are original songs on here, they're things like this: An instrumental based on an extremely generic boogie progression. Holy crap!!! Now, I find this thing to be pretty entertaining, just listening to that jumbly lead guitar wobbling around all over the place. Midway through, the electric organ starts to groove around, joining in the fun, and then later on, there's a saxophone. ...The rhythm is very solid and forceful. ...I gotta say, I'm not thrilled that Dylan would do a song like this, but as long as he did, at least he made it entertaining!
Belle Isle A
Once again, this album has some really good songs on it for what's supposed to be one of Dylan's all-time career-worst albums. This is another old song credited to Mr. Traditional, but it has a beautiful melody that's earnestly delivered by Dylan. He might not be hitting all the notes with precision, but his torn vocals always seem more passionate to me. ...And then putting it over the edge is a sweeping string section, which fits the mood of the piece beautifully. This should be in a movie somewhere.
Living the Blues A
Again, here's a song written by Dylan that's generic that it doesn't seem original at all. I mean, this seems much more generic than most of the actual covers he does. ...But, I don't know if I'm too much of a Dylan fanboy to really think straight, but I'm having a blast with this one, too. The melody is really catchy even though it's reminding me strongly of several old-timey songs that I can't really name. (..Oh wait, I'm pretty sure I'm thinking of Ringo Starr's “You're Sixteen.” That came after this. Oh well. ...Maybe someone can e-mail me with an actual old-timey song this melody resembles?) The lead guitar is amazing. As long as Dylan was writing generic stuff like this, at least he did them RIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!
Like a Rolling Stone A
Reason #454 everyone seems to hate this album: Dylan haphazardly threw in live recordings. But that's what this album is, right? Just a goofy bag of party favors. You'll treasure some of them, and probably toss the rest. But so many of these trinkets interest me! ...The thing about this live recording, while not the best recording imaginable, is that he's singing this iconic song of his in his country-crooner voice with The Band. I recognize their voices there in the background! ...Who could not possibly like this? Of course it has nothing on the original, but I can do nothing but love this version as well.
Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight) A
This is a beautiful recording of a famous old song that's probably best known for the Joan Baez cover. (It's the song that appears before “Kumbaya” on Joan Baez in Concert, Vol. 1... So basically, it's the song before that album goes completely downhill!) Naturally, it's a great song, and Dylan gives a very earnest interpretation of it. His vocals come across as sincere, and he hits all the notes! He uses that same sweeping string orchestration that he's used previously in this album, and it's still great. The backup singers are nice, too...
Gotta Travel On A-
Yet another excellent cover. I've never heard the original, but it must've been great. This is a tight, upbeat toe-tapper with a catchy melody. Dylan's vocal performance is excellent, and I like those backup singers. I'm giving it an A-, but I could have easily given it an A. ...Yes, I'm not being terribly generous with my song ratings!
Blue Moon A-
Hah... I believe this is the song most people cite as the main reason Self Portrait stinks. It's an OLD song written by Rodgers and Hart, and I believe is still a well-known song. It's cheesy for sure, but who's going to deny that this also isn't a good performance? Dylan's singing with his crooner's voice again, and he's hitting all the notes. The band plays loosely, and they're quite pleasurable. There's an eerie violin solo in there... Ooooo! The backup singers are there, and are as pretty as ever.
The Boxer A
This one's pretty hilarious... Bob Dylan does a duet with himself... One voice is in his usual Mr. Wheezebags voice and the second is in his Nashville Skyline croon. The overdubbing is rough, but the entertainment value is endless. I assume that everyone knows this Simon & Garfunkel classic by heart... So, you know it's a great song with a great melody that's great even if you're not terribly amused at this alleged butchering.
The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo) A
This is another bit taken from that live show. It was a song that had come out of The Basement Tapes with The Band and then given to Manfred Mann who turned it into a hit in 1968. It's not bad! The recording quality, as with the previous live recording, is a bit iffy, but it's a fun song. It's catchy, and Dylan's vocals are boisterous.
Take Me As I Am A
Once again, I might rather hear Bob Dylan do an original song, but when he's finding these really enjoyable country-western tunes to perform, I'm not gonna complain. The melody is beautiful, and he sings it earnestly with his country-crooner voice. The instrumentals come off as homely and organic... They're not too sloppy, but they're not too neat, either. The slide guitar that flows in and out in the background is beautiful, and the female back-up singers continue to be well done... surprisingly...
Take a Message to Mary B+
This is another country-western ditty that was written by the same people who wrote the previous one. Hmmm! I never heard of them before. Maybe he was a fan? ...This is another nicely written song with a fun melody and organic instrumentation, but it doesn't strike me quite as memorable. Again, I'm not sure why I so frequently read that Dylan's vocals are substandard throughout this album when it sounds like he's singing so earnestly...
It Hurts Me Too A
He does another cover of an old blues song, and it sounds pretty fantastic to my ears. Of course Dylan doesn't have a typical blues voice, but this his self-portrait, after all! His vocals are nonetheless done well, hitting all the notes and with a soulful verve. The organic instrumentation taken on by a couple of acoustic guitars and a walking bass are just about right for it.
Minstrel Boy A-
Another song recorded live with The Band although it's a Bob Dylan original that never appeared on any of his albums, other than this, as far as I'm aware! It's a little bit slow paced for my tastes, but the melody is nice. I also like that drunken-chorus quality Dylan has going with The Band.
She Belongs to Me A-
Another live song! I hear this huuuuge eruption from the crowd as he starts to sing this, although I suppose many were wishing that he'd lay off that goofy country-crooner voice! Anyway, The Band provides solid, shuffly instrumentation to it... And of course this is a great song. The recording quality probably could have been better, but … eh... it's fine.
Now, if this album were filled only with songs like these, then I might be more sympathetic to everyone who says stuff along the lines of Self Portrait ruined their childhoods. ...But, if no track on Self Portrait tells you not to take it too seriously, then let it be this one. It's a Dylan original where he sings “La la la la” in a nearly operatic voice with a full brass band. It's pure silliness. ...But even so, can you claim that it's a poorly written song? The hooks are quite strong.
Alberta #2 A-
This is just another version of a song that had appeared earlier in this album. ...Hey, this is an album full of random stuff, so a second version of a song that had already appeared on an album is allowed. It's straightforward, earnestly sung, and nicely performed. The first version was certainly much more polished and slowly paced, but this version wins points back for being more spirited.
This album has been so lambasted over the years—to the extent of it being named the third worst album of all time by prominent music critics—but that's been a vastly unfair assessment. All of these songs are good and performed earnestly.
Read more Bob Dylan reviews by Starcollector!
Bob Dylan (1962) | The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) | The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964) | Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) | Bringing it All Back Home (1965) | Highway 61 Revisited (1965) | Blonde on Blonde (1966) | John Wesley Harding (1967) | Nashville Skyline (1969) | Self Portrait (1970)