When the great music Journalist Griel Marcus of Rolling Stone reviewed Bob Dylan’s tenth studio album, “Self-Portrait”, in the spring of 1970, he bluntly began his review with the now famous line so often associated with the album, “what is this shit?” Griel Marcus by all accounts spoke for the generation that kept such high expectations of Dylan especially after records like “John Wesley Harding” and “Nashville Skyeline”.
When Self-Portrait came out, DJs would stop playing full playthroughs on radio shows due to the amount of complaints from callers. It was a total critical and commercial flop, so much so that it has become a turn of phrase, when an artist/musician goes completely left field and it flops, is now synonymously known as a “Self-Portrait moment” in music circles.
Self-Portrait was a collection of covers of various folk pop songs, original tracks and re-vamped live recordings from Dylan’s only live show in 1969 at the Isle of Wight Festival. For the vast majority of fans and critics, there was nothing they perceived as personal on the album, they wanted something starkly relatable and something to own, very much in the spirit of “Blonde on Blonde”.
In their eyes, there was nothing there, Self Portrait was too weird, too little of the Bob Dylan they wanted. If you asked anyone who was of that mind back then what they think now, you wouldn’t exactly get the same answer, probably somewhere in between.
After many years of deliberation and many eras of Dylan later, not to mention the revisited edition “Another Self-Portrait” which came out in 2013, Self Portrait is something very special and most definitely self-revealing.
Self-Portrait is where Dylan came from, what inspired him, who inspired him, as simple as what he liked to sing and perform, to make it his own. Covers like Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” , Billie Holiday’s “Blue Moon” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Mornin' Rain” from initial listenings sound a little disjointed, but all grow on you considerably once you appreciate Dylan’s spin on them.
I always knew Self-Portrait was special for some inexplicable reason, after catching one of my close friends who strictly only listens to Hip-Hop listening to the track “Little Sadie” and exclaiming that he loves that album, that special aura was further extenuated. If such a track like that could attract such an individual, even the most averse person to music could find something enjoyable and relatable to Self-portrait.
Even the Wes Anderson movie featured instrumental “Wigwam” , is so enjoyable, with Dylan La La La-ing his way along with the horn section. Just as Wigwam finishes, you go straight into “Alberta No.2” , a great soul folk song, joined by backup singers accompanying Dylan throughout it, which also show up in many other tracks, like the opener “All the tired Horses”.
To keep things short, there is a lot to deal with in Self Portrait. It’s all worth the initial displeasure in that once you give it your time, you reap the rewards. The times we live in are a bit unhinged, very much like the album itself, and surely it’s time for a bit of self-portrait for all of us. We will probably get very different things out of listening to the album, but that’s okay, that’s why he wrote it, that’s Dylan at his best even when we all said it was his worst. So check out Self Portrait and its more detailed revisited edition wherever you can get it. Maybe we can convince you of its unpraised excellence or not: either way, enjoy it.