One For Keeps

One for Keeps: Bob Dylan – Self Portrait

Bob Dylan - Self Portrait

Bob Dylan – Self Portrait

One For Keeps is a features series in which musicOMH writers wax lyrical on albums they’d just not be able to cope without. Here, Ross Horton urges you to take another look at a lost classic, one mistakenly disliked only because of context

Some albums, works of art, dance routines, garments, movies (especially movies) – and by proxy, ideas – are so terrible that some poor folks can’t help but love them. In recent years, loving things that are terrible is a sure-fire indicator that you’re a hipster. If you needed any more evidence, see the rise of yacht rock, where what was once the uncoolest genre of music ever has now risen to festival headliner status. It’s also probably the most listened-to genre of music in the world, what with the rise of YouTube and Spotify chill-out playlists.

What I’m getting at is that either everybody is a hipster, or nobody is. I will gladly look down the barrel of a gun, and admit that I wilfully love some terrible things. David Bowie’s ‘Phil Collins years’? Check. Phil Collins himself? Check. Exotica and lounge? Oh yes. Limp Bizkit? Not quite, but there’s still time. 

I’m basically going to try and defend a ‘terrible’ album here, but as is the case with a select handful ‘terrible’ albums, they’re only disliked because of context. If Self Portrait were released by another other artist in 1970, it would have been adored. As it was Bob Dylan who released it, it’s unanimously panned. Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus once memorably asked: “What is this shit?”

Some of the accusations levelled Self Portrait are true, of course. It is too long. It does feature a handful of bizarre ideas. It is needlessly domesticated, laconic and bucolic in equal measure. It is erratic, unpredictable and slapdash. But these are all elements that are celebrated in other works. These are all things you could say about The Beatles‘ The White Album, or much of Neil Young’s early acoustic work, or any album by The Grateful Dead, or any album Joan Baez released in the ’70s, or even Dylan’s own The Basement Tapes. What I’m getting at is that it’s not a hipster thing to like or even love Self Portrait, because it is a great album.

There are endless irrefutable positives here, that one would be remiss to ignore. The album features soulful, sincere live takes of Like A Rolling Stone, She Belongs To Me, The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo) and Basement Tapes curio Minstrel Boy – all recorded at Dylan’s legendary Isle of Wight Festival appearance in 1969. How any album with those four tracks could be any less than ‘good’ is beyond me.

It also features, in Wigwam, one of Dylan’s most memorable – and most underappreciated – tunes to emerge after his imperial phase in the mid ’60s.  And it’s not the only lost classic. All the Tired Horses, with its majestic, sweeping feel, is classic spiritual Dylan. Then you’ve got the cheeky strut of Woogie Boogie, which – in two minutes – totally invalidates anything ‘creative’ Jools Holland has ever been accused of. 

If only God-level Dylan will do, that’s here too. Check out his version of Days of ‘49, which is just about as epic as it gets. Wistful but bitter, angry without rage, nostalgic but melancholy, this is Dylan operating on a level only he can. 

It Hurts Me Too and Take a Message To Mary (popularised by The Everly Brothers) are both hidden away on Side 4, and they tender, intimate and sincere – they are filled with a sentimental power that presages Blood on the Tracks’ heartbroken, soul-baring mood.

The other covers, spread liberally across the album, are a mixed bag. Some are delivered with a unique and potent gravitas, others are barely hanging together by a thread. Blue Moon and I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know are both downbeat, throwaway versions that don’t quite hit their mark. His take on Paul Simon’s The Boxer is just strange – Dylan apparently does both Simon and Art Garfunkel’s parts, which means his then-current ‘country’ voice is joined by his mid-’60s wail in one of the most bizarre moments in his catalogue.

There, it’s official. The folks reviewing this in 1970 were wrong. This album is so, so right. Let it be forever known that hipsters and normal folks alike were joined in communion in the year 2020, celebrating the brilliance of Bob Dylan’s 1970 masterpiece Self Portrait. 

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