Monster #5: Self Portrait

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History's Greatest Monsters

“History’s Greatest Monsters” is a regular evaluation of albums deemed some of the worst in history. We do this not for the sake of schadenfreude, but to try to understand how these reputations were earned. Certainly, there are bound to be pleasant surprises. And certainly, there will be some truly unpleasant experiences in the months ahead. But we’ll all be better people for it, and hopefully we will have all learned something, and had a good laugh. Periodically, we will publish a Progress Report, to recap just where all of our candidates stand on the hierarchy of bad music, if they do at all.

Bob Dylan – Self Portrait

Being one of the most prolific and influential figures in the last 50 years of popular music means continually being treated to almost obscene levels of hyperbole. Bob Dylan is no stranger to it; check any of Rolling Stone‘s annual mega greatest-of-all-time lists and you’ll inevitably find Dylan in the top 10. But the exaggeration is two-fold; if his triumphs are godlike, his failures are tantamount to treason, or so one would be led to believe when, in 1966, a fan shouted “Judas!” in response to his going electric. And, thanks to an interview in… wait for it… Rolling Stone, Dylan himself engaged in some hyperbole, responding to his hecklers 45 years later by saying “All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.”

If nobody else is going to say it, then I will: Bob Dylan isn’t perfect. And boy, can he hold a grudge! But for how much amazing music he’s written and performed over the years, he’s proven himself just as capable of producing crap. At 71, he could spend the rest of his days basking in the legacy of Blonde On Blonde and Blood On the Tracks, and nobody would question it. But these successes don’t eradicate the existence of his lesser material, among which Self Portrait is frequently considered the absolute nadir.

When Dylan initially released Self Portrait in 1970, Greil Marcus began his review with four carefully chosen words: “What is this shit?” It’s not “Shit Sandwich,” but it’ll do. And frankly, he had plenty of reason to express complete bewilderment at this shambling double album. There’s a lot of material to sift through, a great number of which just doesn’t seem to make any sense, either as part of the album or as self-contained songs. Some of it’s rough, much of it completely lacking in any energy or drive whatsoever, while some if it just plain sucks. It’s also 73 minutes, which makes it a test of the listener’s will even to make it to the end. But for how notorious it is, not to mention universally panned, it bears asking: is it really that bad?

Self Portrait is a mess, but it is by no means an unqualified failure. The seemingly slapdash way with which it’s sequenced imbues it with the quality of an outtakes or b-sides collection, which it more or less is. Many of the songs had been recorded during the Nashville Skyline sessions a few years prior, and Dylan has called it his own “bootleg” record. So, yeah, it’s Dylan’s massive Tupperware stack of leftovers, some of which stuck around past their freshness date. The rest comprises rough live versions, some oddly chosen cover versions and a handful of other odds and ends. Nobody will ever mistake this for Blonde On Blonde Part Two, but it’s also entirely listenable and at various points, actually pretty enjoyable.

The first clue that something is a little off with Self Portrait is with the first track, “All The Tired Horses.” Dylan is nowhere to be found here, instead leaving the performance up to a string section and a group of female singers. It’s a little confusing, but once you get past the fact that Bob didn’t bother to show up, it’s actually a stunning track, gorgeous in its arrangement and simplicity. But for nearly the first whole side, Dylan and his backing band actually keep up a pretty strong winning streak, with tracks like “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” and “Days of 49” not just standing out as decent tracks among middling ones, but as actual good songs. The former is a gentle country-folk tune that’s affecting in its softer representation of Dylan’s singing style, while the latter is a bigger, harder rocking cover of an Alan Lomax tune.

It’s only at the end of Side One, with “In Search of Little Sadie,” that the album begins to fall apart. Dylan’s vocal performance is so off-key and shambling, it can only be construed as intentionally bad. And if one lousy version of the murder ballad, better known as “Cocaine Blues,” wasn’t enough to dissuade listeners, Dylan included a second, slightly better bluegrass version, for reasons I’m still not certain. More poorly performed covers follow — a throwaway take on “Blue Moon,” a double-tracked harmony of “The Boxer” in which you get to hear Dylan sound bored in two registers (!) — as well as a handful of lackluster live versions of older songs such as “Like a Rolling Stone” and “She Belongs to Me,” the latter of which suffers from sound issues that make an already forgettable take that much more annoying.

Certainly, Self Portrait has its share of crap, and beyond that, another decent helping of songs lacking much character. And yet, there’s easily enough material here to make a pretty good single album. The aforementioned “Days of 49,” “Tired Horses” and “I Forgot” could have been salvaged along with the rollicking “The Mighty Quinn,” lovely “Copper Kettle” and charming instrumental “Wigwam.” These songs still might not make a lot of sense on the same album, but at least it would be trimmed of any excess or just plain bad material.

It’s probably best to classify Self Portrait as a good “bad” album. It’s not a particularly strong effort, and by Dylan’s standards, it’s certainly a failure. But it has enough redeeming qualities to escape being and outright disaster. The bigger crime is that, upon its release, its status as a double album made it more expensive, thus demanding twice as much for material that’s half as good. I’m a pretty strong proponent of supporting artists, but that’s pretty fucked.

Final Grade: C

Previous Monsters:
Monster #4: Sonic Youth – NYC Ghosts and Flowers
Monster #3: Guns `n’ Roses – Chinese Democracy
Monster #2: R.E.M. – Around the Sun

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