Top of the Pops: Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait

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December 13, 2012 by NowhereButPop

By Steve Secular


One of my favorite albums is The Band’s Northern Lights-Southern Lights. It’s not the best album, and there are better live versions of some of the songs elsewhere. But whenever I put on “Hobo Jungle,” and Richard Manuel sings out longingly, as Levon Helm’s mandolin follows after him, I’m always taken back to the summer after graduating high school. Something about that album captures that moment in my history.

When Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes was interviewed by The Guardian during the making of the band’s second album, he explained that he wanted to do “vocal takes in one go, so even if there are fuck-ups, I want them to be on there. I want there to be guitar mistakes. I want there to be not totally flawless vocals. I want to record it and have that kind of cohesive sound. Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, to me, is the best-sounding album because it sounds like there were only six hours in the universe for that album to be recorded in. So I want it to have that feeling.”

Now, I cannot speculate on Bob Dylan’s state of mind while recording Self Portrait from 1969 to 1970, and assorted theories have circulated for years, as is typically the case for all things Dylan. But what makes the album truly special is that feels like it occupies a unique space in the universe. Perhaps not the mere six hours that Pecknold designated for Astral Weeks, but Self Portrait is certainly borne of a particular moment.

It is at once ambitious, playful, experimental, and stagnant. Like a pile of mixed-up puzzle pieces dropped on a table, without any intention of ever completing the picture. The album reflects precisely the kind of work I’d imagine Dylan experimenting with behind the scenes. The country sound left over fromthe previous album Nashville Skyline is still on full display, along with the jam-esque feel of his concurrent Basement Tapes work with The Band, and with crooning covers of “Blue Moon” and “The Boxer” thrown in for good measure.

The album is nowhere near unified, which is partly the reason for its being dismissed, and a large part of its brilliance. Dylan doesn’t so much as sing a note on the opening track, then adopts his “normal” singing voice on “Alberta #1”, before delving into his country croon for “I Forgot More Than You’ve Ever Know”. As Greil Marcus’s review for Rolling Stone famously began, “What is this shit?” Indeed, what is this album, where Dylan changes voices and instrumentation from song to song? Hell, even within an individual song: “In Search of Little Sadie” change chords and entire keys so abruptly and angrily it constantly keeps the listener unsettled.

It forces us to question the entire concept of an album. As it is, I’m currently having trouble articulating what the album even sounds like. Because to describe any one song would give absolutely no insight into how the others sound. It is an album which perfectly captures Dylan’s mindset in that exact space: caught between country, pop, and rock, and trying to bust its way out, experimenting along the way. “Even if there are fuck-ups” as Robin Pecknold said of his own album.

The album’s ability to capture a specific moment in time is arguably most central to its success, and almost paradoxically, prevents it from ever becoming caught within that time. If Dylan’s album reflects precisely how he saw music in those months, than it will always be reflective, and thus valid, regardless of how drastically styles of music transform and evolve.

No matter how much I change over time, I’ll always have that summer after high school, listening to “Hobo Jungle” and “Acadian Driftwood,” thinking about my college future and contemplating my high school past. Robin Pecknold tried to capture the same for Helplessness Blues, and only he can say for sure whether he succeeded. When Bob Dylan released the Biograph box set, he was interviewed by Cameron Crowe for the liner notes, wherein he explained of Self Portrait: “To open up we’d do two or three songs, just to get things right and then we’d go on and do what we were going to do. And then there was a lot of other stuff that was just on the shelf. But I was being bootlegged at the time and a lot of stuff that was worse was appearing on bootleg records. So I just figured I’d put all this stuff together and put it out, my own bootleg record, so to speak.”

It’s the official Dylan bootleg release, that reflects a particular moment in his history. It is a self portrait, a sonic painting of the man that once was, and thus, the man that will always be, whether its in the grooves of the vinyl, or years later, floating in the either of the data files.


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