The second half of Bob Dylan’s first decade as a performing artist started promisingly enough. After his fabled 1966 motorcycle crash, Dylan overhauled his approach and wound up with more direct, altogether less ambitious music than what he’d been recording immediately prior. Neither 1967’s John Wesley Harding nor ‘69’s Nashville Skyline had a “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, but the syrupy melodies and light, efficient arrangements made for country rock at its finest, standout cuts among them being the Johnny Cash duet “Girl from the North Country” and the jumpy Ray Charles pastiche of “Down Along the Cove”.
Even so, those two LPs foreshadowed the disaster that was Self Portrait. Theories of the 1970 double LP’s premise remain convoluted. Some say Dylan originally (if not always) intended it to be a respectable album, while others suggest that the 28-year-old was essentially trolling both the public and his label with the record. But it’s indisputable that Self Portrait was the nadir of his career to that point. Though it sold well, venomous critiques abounded (Greil Marcus’s mischievous opening line in Rolling Stone: “What is this shit?”), and there’s really no excusing some of the material within – check the Dylan-less intro “All the Tired Horses”, the lackadaisical vocal improvising of “Wigwam”, and the messy cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” that was nowhere near as reverential as Paul and Art’s Dylan covers.
So why would the tenth installment of the Bootleg Series be centered on Self Portrait, especially when it was first rumored that 10 would be a collection of Blonde on Blonde outtakes? We may never know, but be elated that Another Self Portrait isn’t just Self Portrait outtakes; here also are alternate takes from Nashville Skyline and New Morning, plus a couple numbers from Dylan’s 1969 appearance at the Isle of Wight festival and an outtake from The Basement Tapes (“Minstrel Boy”).
So, yes, there is real bottom-of-the-barrel stuff here. And we’re talking even lower than the valleys of the original Self Portrait LP. The slow-moving, six-minute “House Carpenter” is especially underwhelming when you realize you could hear “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” in the same time, and “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue” is essentially just an awkward cousin of 1964’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”. But there are also pleasing discoveries along its two-hour runtime. It wouldn’t be a true Bootleg installment otherwise.
Presumably inspired by Dylan’s first wife Sara Lownds, the two-minute “Pretty Saro” is a lovely big-sky haunt, sounding more like My Morning Jacket’s Jim James covering Dylan than Dylan himself. Later there’s “Thirsty So Soon”, which easily could’ve been a hit for a smoother-voiced bard, maybe John Denver or someone of that ilk. On the other hand, Another Self Portrait is highlighted by songs we’ve heard before but present here in different versions, such as the cozy lament “I Threw It All Away” and a live version of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, on which Levon Helm’s scintillating backing howls are all the more affecting in light of his recent death.
“I contemplated every move, or at least I tried,” Dylan sings on “Went to See the Gypsy”. Elsewhere, Another Self Portrait indicates that while he had trouble with his writing mechanics around this time, it wasn’t for lack of trying. “Sign on the Window” is home to orchestral arrangements that could have been on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, while Abbey Road dynamics power the second alternate version of “Time Passes Slowly”. These, as well as the rockabilly of “Working on a Guru” and the Nashville classicism of “Tattle O’Day”, are moderate successes, but they reveal that Dylan did in fact have the motivation to flesh out new directions for himself during these years. Let’s be grateful that this set exists, if only because it begins to clears up a mythical period of the now 72-year-old Dylan’s frequently inscrutable oeuvre.
Essential Tracks: “Pretty Saro”, “I Threw It All Away”, and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”