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Bob Dylan : Self Portrait

Self Portrait
Bob Dylan

Sundazed Music
33rpm 180 gram Double Vinyl LP

Dylan had a White Album, too…

Bob Dylan : Self PortraitI have to admit that I approached this review with a soupçon of trepidation. This album, originally released on the Columbia label in 1970, tends to stir up deep passion, particularly negatively critical passion.

Nearly universally panned upon release (the reviewer for Rolling Stone rhetorically asked: “What is this shit?”), the album—at face value—does present a rather odd mix of tunes. In this regard, it strikes me as an analog of The Beatles’ White Album: some truly marvelous songs mixed in with some that lead you to exclaim “What were they thinking?” Of course, at this stage in Dylan’s professional life, he had already ascended to the heights of Olympus, at least for some fans. He had also engineered some meaningful shifts in style, from acoustic to electric, and so on. He was thus in a place where he could have released an album of his snoring and fans would have snapped it up. At the end of the day, if Dylan wanted to mine the middle of the road, he was fully able to do it and to withstand the inevitable criticism that would result.

After listening to the album a few times, it was the covers of songs that stood out for me (not always in a positive way). Tackling some of these was an act of bravery: how do you improve on Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” the Everly Brothers’ “Let it Be Me” and “Take a Message to Mary”? How about “Blue Moon”? Yep, they’re all in there.

At the same time there are some peculiar songs. The first track, “All the Tired Horses,” is one of them. In my listening notes I had scrawled “weird muzak,” and I’m not sure I’ve changed my opinion since hearing it the first time.

There’s a mingling of country-inflected tunes here, such as “Alberta #1” and “Copper Kettle”; some solid Dylan tunes such as “Wigwam” and “Living the Blues”; and a couple of not-terribly-impressive live tracks (“Like a Rolling Stone” and “She Belongs to Me”).

In all, a mix that could be dismissed as filler, criticized as perplexing, or claimed to be pointless. Except, when I listened to these cuts, I found—a bit to my surprise—that I rather liked a number of them. Yes, there is mellowness here, and in 1970 it wasn’t what you’d expect from Dylan. Then again, look at some of Dylan’s more recent work. Was this album a hint of things to come 40 years hence? Going back to the similarity with the White Album, there is probably a single LP’s worth of really solid material here, but the release of songs that might have been cut from a single album provides us with some interesting insight.

The physical product from Sundazed is a nice piece of work. The cover graphics are produced to a very high standard and the vinyl itself is pristine and quiet. I feel that this album was a bit over-produced (double-tracking Dylan’s vocals on “The Boxer”… yuk). But Sundazed has done an excellent job on this remaster, and the cuts (excluding the live songs) sound just fine.

“Self Portrait” is a bit of a conundrum: it wasn’t the Dylan we knew, nor was it the Dylan we were to know. It was, perhaps, an interlude for him. A pause during the long climb when he did something for himself (it is called “Self Portrait,” after all). In sum, as long as you aren’t expecting the “voice of the prophet” to issue from your loudspeakers, you may discover that Self Portrait is, in many ways, a likeable album and one worth adding to the collection, particularly in this high-quality vinyl format.

System Used for Review

  • Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference 3.1 speakers
  • McIntosh C712 preamplifier
  • Yamaha MX-D1 stereo power amplifier and Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference 3 subwoofer amplifier
  • Sony XDR-F1HD tuner
  • VPI Classic Turntable with JMW-10.5i Special Edition Tonearm
  • Benz Micro Glider SL Cartridge
  • Musical Surroundings NovaPhonomena Phono Preamplifier
  • Shanling SCD-T200 SACD player
  • Apple iPod Classic, 160 gb
  • Mapleshade speaker wire, Blue Jeans speaker cable and interconnects, Ultimate Cables, AudioQuest, ProSolutions and AR interconnects

Readers' comments

    I was a big Dylan fan then and I went to school in Sewanee TN. The cello prof, Martha McCrory (I think) played on that album, including on “All The Tired Horses,” which I like.

    • Do you know exactly when and where All The Tired Horses was recorded?


      • I don’t, unfortunately, and I’ve done a bit of Googling to find out the answer to this without success.

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