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Recorded between the Spring seasons of 1969 and 1970, this is considered to be one of Bob Dylan's more confusing albums since he doesn't stick to form and does many covers of traditional or other people's songs. Many people intended this to be a very serious change for Dylan since he had changed his sounds and methods before with the "Electric Dylan Controversy," the "Judas" era, and then with the John Wesley Harding Semi-Acoustic era. However, be that as it may—this is what Bob Dylan had to say about it for himself, putting the album into perspective for everyone. Whether this is entirely true or not, we will probably never know; but for now, we've had to take his word for it.
Bob Dylan on 'Self Portrait:'
"At the time, I was in Woodstock, and I was getting a great degree of notoriety for doing nothing. Then I had that motorcycle accident [in 1966], which put me out of commission. Then, when I woke up and caught my senses, I realized that I was workin' for all these leeches. And I didn't wanna do that. Plus, I had a family, and I just wanted to see my kids.
I'd also seen that I was representing all these things that I didn't know anything about. Like I was supposed to be on acid. It was all storm-the-embassy kind of stuff—Abbie Hoffman in the streets—and they sorta figured me as the kingpin of all that. I said, 'Wait a minute, I'm just a musician. So my songs are about this and that. So what?' But people need a leader. People need a leader more than a leader needs people, really. I mean, anybody can step up and be a leader, if he's got the people there that want one. I didn't want that, though.
But then came the big news about Woodstock, about musicians goin' up there, and it was like a wave of insanity breakin' loose around the house day and night. You'd come in the house and find people there, people comin' through the woods, at all hours of the day and night, knockin' on your door. It was really dark and depressing. And there was no way to respond to all this, you know? It was as if they were suckin' your very blood out. I said, 'Now wait, these people can't be my fans. They just can't be.' And they kept comin'. We had to get out of there.
This was just about the time of that Woodstock festival, which was the sum total of all this bullshit. And it seemed to have something to do with me, this Woodstock Nation, and everything it represented. So we couldn't breathe. I couldn't get any space for myself and my family, and there was no help, nowhere. I got very resentful about the whole thing, and we got outta there.
We moved to New York. Lookin' back, it really was a stupid thing to do. But there was a house available on MacDougal Street, and I always remembered that as a nice place. So I just bought this house, sight unseen. But it wasn't the same when we got back. The Woodstock Nation had overtaken MacDougal Street also. There'd be crowds outside my house. And I said, 'Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can't possibly like, they can't relate to. They'll see it, and they'll listen, and they'll say, 'Well, let's get on to the next person. He ain't sayin' it no more. He ain't given' us what we want,' you know? They'll go on to somebody else. But the whole idea backfired. Because the album went out there, and the people said, 'This ain't what we want,' and they got more resentful. And then I did this portrait for the cover. I mean, there was no title for that album. I knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes. And I said, 'Well, I'm gonna call this album Self Portrait.'"
(Bob Dylan, Rolling Stone Magazine, 1984)
What we're going to do is explore five things we love about Self Portrait and why it's remained one of the most enigmatic albums by one of America's most enigmatic singers and songwriters.
1. His Voice
Bob Dylan's singing voice is absolutely brilliant on this album. It sounds very refined and incredibly smooth. Not only that, but it's Bob Dylan proving that he can sing in a completely different style to the days of Freewheelin' and Blonde on Blonde and even, John Wesley Harding—which only happened three years before this album. Just listen to these songs:
I told you, didn't I?
2. The Sound of the Album
Contrary to popular belief, the sound of this album is so damn good. It sounds really old country and semi-acoustic folk. If you don't believe me then just listen to the sound of Another Self Portrait—which is the bootleg album for this particular era. The overdubs do make the songs slightly more three dimensional, but without the overdubs (like the versions on Another Self Portrait) are just as good. Just check out these two different sounds created on the same song. They may only be slight, but it does make a difference on to how you hear the song.
3. The Traditional Songs
There were a number of traditional folk songs on the album that I thought Bob Dylan sang brilliantly. The following songs were traditional and you can just hear the amazing sound in Bob Dylan's voice and how he puts real emotion into the songs. He really does make them his own:
4. The Reviews
The reviews of this album are fairly hilarious and well, everyone knows about Greil Marcus' writing for Rolling Stone Magazine that opens with "What is this s***?" But, it's funny in the sense that it was completely panned and now, it's quite well-respected amongst the Dylan discography. I see far more love for Self Portrait than I do for something like Together Through Life, and fellow Bob Dylan fans—I really don't know how I feel about that.
AllMusic gave it 2 out of 5 stars and Entertainment Weekly gave it a C-. This is only just the beginning. MusicHound gave it 2 out of 5 and Rolling Stone Magazine Album Guide gave it 1 out of 5 stars. The Village Voice gave it a C+ (well, I guess that's better than a C-).
Another part of Greil Marcus's famed review states: "Unless he returns to the marketplace, with a sense of vocation and the ambition to keep up with his own gifts, the music will continue to dominate his records, whether he releases them or not."
However, Marc Bolan of T. Rex stated about the album (and especially about one song), something strangely positive:
"I've just listended to Dylan's new album, and in particular 'Belle Isle,' and I feel deeply moved that such a man is making music in my time. Dylan's songs are now mainly love ballads, the writing of which is one of the most poetic art forms since the dawn of man. 'Belle Isle' brought to my memory all the moments of tenderness I've ever felt for another human being, and that, within the superficial landscape of pop music, is a great thing indeed. Please, all the people who write bitterly of a lost star, remember that with maturity comes change, as surely as death follows life."
5. The Songs He Didn't Write
Not just traditional songs, this album is also packed full of really good cover songs. I'm actually sorry Paul Simon, but I prefer Bob Dylan's version of "The Boxer"—maybe because I'm more used to Bob Dylan's voice. And obviously, "Days of 49" is now Bob Dylan's song whether everyone likes it or not, he owns it now. Let's have a look at the songs he didn't write on the album:
So there's five reasons why we love Self Portrait and yes, it was difficult to pick only five. I quite like this album actually and didn't really understand all the hate for it. There's still quite a bit of hate for it today and people still can't accept that Bob Dylan was just trying to have a bit of fun. He sounded great, the album was awesome, and there's a lot that can be learnt about his career from the album. So for these days, let's celebrate the 49th birthday of one of Bob Dylan's most controversial and most well-sung albums ever.