Comment: ‘The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)’ (Bob Dylan, 2013)

The following is more of a comment on the press, commentary and labelling surrounding the album than a review of the album itself, which I won’t review until I listen to the whole thing in full. The 15 songs I’ve heard so far are wondrous: poignant, funny, real… pure Dylan, despite nearly half the tracks on the full album being covers.

The unfortunately mis-titled front cover.
The unfortunately mis-titled front cover.

It’s been on the market for 5 days now, and I still haven’t bought it. I might as well wait ‘til after Christmas; Dylan is my favourite, no question, but my fandom is not quite rabid enough to compel me to get the Deluxe Edition on vinyl, and assiduously compare it to Self Portrait [SP]. Nevertheless, since the reviews of Another Self Portrait [ASP] – which I’ve been reading somewhat obsessively – began to trickle out, two things have aggrieved me enough to want to blog something about the release, despite not even having listened to the album in full.

I’ll air the simpler quibble first: why the hell is the front cover erroneous? ‘Minstrel Boy’, while hardly significant compared to some of the other recordings on ASP, still deserves to be acknowledged. It’s a 1967 recording. So why part of the album’s official title is “1969-1971” is beyond me. There are no discernible commercial reasons behind it. If, for reasons of cohesion, they thought it fell outside the period under inspection, they should have left it off the album. (Of course, I’m glad they didn’t – it’s a lovely nugget.)

Dismiss that complaint, if you wish, as mere pedantry. I have another complaint. Can someone please find me a publication review that contains no mention of Greil Marcus or the phrase “What is this shit?”? Both are even mentioned in the second paragraph of the album’s (admittedly awful) Wikipedia article. I understand why comparisons to SP and its reception have to be made; a juxtaposition of the 1970 and 2013 releases is inevitable, and no doubt necessary for a more comprehensive understanding of one of Dylan’s most personal, interesting periods. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that nearly two-thirds of the ASP recordings came before the SP ones. It was these recordings that were later embellished for the 1970 release. For critics to unanimously ensconce their ASP reviews in a framework of comparisons to SP is to do the original recordings a disservice. An apposite analogy: no-one looks at Dylan’s recording of ‘Tears of Rage’ through the prism of the Band’s version, which was released first, and officially. Simple aesthetic comparisons are fine, but not deterministic ones.

If we see the SP recordings as a deliberate act of self-sabotage and -reinvention, we might want to think about ASP in a similar way to how we think about his debut album. It’s symbolically and aesthetically significant on its own terms; it foreshadows what came later, and is an important part of the Dylan recording narrative. Primarily, it cements Dylan’s place as a interpreter sans pareil as well as an innovator.

We can all agree that the New Morning and Nashville Skyline alternate versions, while pleasing aesthetically, are – to all intents and purposes – ‘insignificant’. So the importance of this release lies in the new perspective it sheds on his previously denigrated recordings. That’s all well and good; it’s interesting, and God knows the period deserves a critical rehabilitation. But if we could all focus on the 16 SP alternate versions without referring to overdubs, Marcus, or shit, we’d be giving the recordings their due respect.

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