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Music Review: Bob Dylan – Self Portrait

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Bob Dylan’s first release of the 1970’s was different from any album that preceded it. Dylan had a history of musical about faces, but this time it was not aimed in a positive direction. If Blonde On Blonde was one of the strongest double albums in rock history, then Self Portrait was one rock’s most disappointing double releases.

Self Portrait was an album of cover songs, obscure traditional folk tunes, live performances from The Isle Of Wight Festival and a few originals. Dylan’s reasoning behind such a release at the time was obscure, and critical reaction was universally negative.

Some felt that this release was Dylan’s protest against his universal fame. Years later Dylan would consider Self Portrait as one of his poorer efforts. Whatever Dylan’s motives, the album would sell well reaching number four on the National charts while also becoming Dylan’s third consecutive number one album in England.  

It took Dylan almost a year to record Self Portrait and he gathered a group of all star musicians in support. The Band, Al Kooper, Pete Drake, David Bromberg, Doug Kershaw plus a huge supporting cast all make, for the most part, wasted appearances. Dylan would also make use of cellos and violins as background.

The passage of years has put the album is a little better light. There are some good performances among the 24 songs but they must be ferreted out.  

The best of the original songs are “The Mighty Quinn,” which had already become a giant hit for Manfred Mann a few years prior, and “All The Tired Horses.” Dylan’s had rarely written a bad song during his career but “Woogie Boogie,” “Wig Wam,” and even “Living The Blues” can be regulated to just album filler.

The cover songs are hit and miss as well. Dylan gives a credible performance of "Early Morning Rain” by Gordon Lightfoot and Alfred Beddoe’s “Copper Kettle” may be the best song on the album. This calm song of the simple life is Dylan at his best in spite of himself. On the other hand “Blue Moon” and “The Boxer” are so bad that you can only hope that Dylan was not serious when he recorded them.  

The live performances from the Isle Of Wight do not fare well. “Like A Rolling Stone” is just flat. “She Belongs To Me” is a song that should have remained acoustic. The best of the lot is “Minstrel Boy,” where at least Dylan seems engaged and interested.

Self Portrait remains an enigmatic release even for Bob Dylan. While it covers a lot of ground, it ultimately collapses upon itself and remains one of the strangest and weakest albums of Bob Dylan’s career.    

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About David Bowling

  • Dude Skoodle

    Its a great album. The article is superficial

  • It’s a superficial album. The article is great.

  • peter van de kerk

    i still remember the New Musical Express review:
    they should give those Dylan intellectuals a field day or hammer them into silence for good.
    Forget it’s Dylan – nothing special, but it’s very pleasant to listen to, despite some awful versions of good songs.

  • Alecko

    Morning Rain and Belleisle are two tracks which at age 57 I find myself singing all the time.I bought the album when it came out.

  • Alias

    Days of 49…?

  • Who’s gonna throw that Minstrel Boy a coin?
    Who’s gonna let it roll?
    Who’s gonna throw that Minstrel Boy a coin?
    Who’s gonna let it dowen easy to save his soul?

    Self Portrait is the birth of Americana!

    It’s the first postmodern country album!

    Amnd yes this is a terribly superficial review….

    Dear reviewer…. go back and listen to the brilliant MINSTREL BOY from the wonderful Isle of Wight performance. Don’t you understand what Dylan’s trying to say???

    Have you tried???

    Or the 2 takes of ‘Alberta’ which bookend the album like a symphony

    Or the great version of the trad ‘Days of 49’

    Or the sheer outrageousness of Dylan doing ‘I’ve Forgotten More Than You’ll Ever Know’ and ‘Blue Moon’

    It’s wonderful!

    Or his versions of ‘Let It Be Me’ and ‘Take A Message To Mary’ 2 Everly Brothers songs

    Or the ‘Nashville Skyline Dylan’ battling it out with the ‘old Dylan’ on Paul Simon’s great song of inner struggle ‘The Boxer’

    SELF PORTRAIT has great musicians, great performances …. you need to listen to it as a whole to really get it…. it’s a symphony of Americana…

    It’s also a brilliant self deprecating statement about ‘personality’, ‘stardom’ and individuality…

    Check out the cover!

    Dylan is saying that these songs, this heritage is the REAL him…

    He’s challenging his audience by putting it out in an ‘unhip’ (at the time) way… stripping off the mask of the ‘Bob Dylan voice’…

    Whew! I could go on (and on)

    But I won’t …

    Just go back and listen to it ALL… soak it all up…

  • bill

    chris gregory!!…amen brother!!! i stopped caring long ago whether anyone GOT this album…
    Bob Dylan is not in the category of Rock n Roller
    I dont know where he fits or if he fits at all but he is wonderful and he makes wonderful music!

  • matthew

    this is quite clearly one of dylans best albums. people just dislike it because its not what they want from him.

    the majority of the songs are great on the album, the rest are good.

    livin the blues, let it be me, ive forgotten more, take a message to mary, all the tired horses, belle isle, early morning rain, alberta (both 1 & 2), woogie boogie and even wigwam are all amazing songs.

    ^thats the majority of the album therefore a great album.

  • Joseph

    Just found the album in our used book store
    what a find what a great album thank you Bob

  • miss_modal

    I have always loved this album; I just listened to it actually.
    Days of ’49; Copper Kettle; Quinn the Eskimo; She Belongs to Me; The Boxer (heard this version before simon and garfunkel’s and I just love the style); Little Sadie; take a message to Mary; Minstrel Boy…. and on and on.

    I never quite understood the hostility to this album.

    Maybe its not his best, but that’s pretty stiff company!

  • John

    this album literally saved my life!

  • Shamus

    I can understand how people waiting for the next masterpiece in 1970 would have been disappointed, but 42 years later this is some fascinating music. One of my favourites right now (not of Dylan’s but of recordings I’m listening to).