uReview: Bob Dylan “Self Portrait”

Self Portrait

allmusic: 2 stars
Robert Christgau: C+
Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus: “What is this shit?”
Rolling Stone today: 4 stars

TRS uReview:
12345678910 (52 votes, average: 6.37 out of 10)


mp3: Wigwam

:D CD Reissue | 1989 | Sony | buy amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1970 | Columbia | search ebay ]

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  • JEFF

    a bad record if one looks at Dylan as the lyric poet messiah – but taken in the context a long and varied career this somewhat frustrating album makes a certain amount of sense – good moments like Days of ’49, Copper Kettle, Minstrel Boy, and a few others, give the set it’s charms – the shit that is The Boxer, and even some of those Isle of Wight tunes (…Rolling Stone) do condemn this LP to the lesser of lesser works by a major artist category – if you own every Dylan release this album does tend to grow on the fanatic…I have to add that…

  • dk

    In a word, horrible. Dylan has made about 185 albums, so there’s no need to ever, ever go here. The only tune on this album that’s even remotely of value – ‘All The Tired Horses’ – features a chorus of backup singers on vocals instead of Dylan. Everything else amounts to a big, steaming pile of horse poop.

  • Artie Fufkin

    Shit sandwich.

  • cody

    Better than he past 2 albums. I love Dylan but he needs to stop making new music.

  • I agree very much with JEFF – I’d heard so many bad things about this record before hearing it but it turns out there’s some pretty good stuff on it, albeit being mediocre by Dylan’s standards.

    I must admit that I’ve yet to hear ‘Dylan’ from 1973. That’s supposed to be the absolute worst Dylan release, from this period anyway…

  • Eric Womack

    The first time I heard this album I nearly laughed myself unconscious. I had recently seen “Don’t Look Back” in which Dylan gives surrealistic and absurd press conferences, makes fun of Donovan, and pretty much shows he’s not your conventional performer. Then I heard the opening notes of “All the Tired Horses” and I was pretty sure that this album was in the same league as the “Oh! I though you’d ask me about the lightbulb” or “I consider myself a song and dance man” press conference clips from “Don’t Look Back.” I laughed and laughed, played it for friends, who usually didn’t understand what I found funny, and more or less made up my mind that this album represented Dylan giving the middle finger to his fans. For some strange reason that belief endeared the album to me.

    Years later, when I finally opened enough musically to appreciate Dylan’s “country phase” (beginning with, roughly, “John Wesley Harding” and roughly ending with this album) I now think about this album very differently, and I actually enjoy listening to it, with the exception of a few tracks.

    Dylan’s first decade was spent continually changing styles. The “protest singers” hugged him to their bosoms until “Another Side of Bob Dylan” and then became violently offended when he completely ditched the protest scene, went electric and didn’t seem to care what they thought. Simultaneously, an entire new scene opened up to him with “Like A Rolling Stone.” Now Dylan was cool, and cooler than could ever be imagined. He was on the pop charts and in the spotlight. The fans at the time probably thought that Dylan had found himself and looked forward to years and years of the same kind of thing. But he unexpectedly turned coat on the “cool rock” scene as well and dove head first into its seeming “uncool” antithesis: country music. The rock fans must have felt a similar betrayal that the “folkies” did when Dylan went electric. On top of it, Dylan didn’t seem to care what they thought, and he again put his career on the line.

    Looking back at over 30 albums it’s a little clearer what Dylan was up to. He refused to be typecast or set into one musical genre to die a slow musical death of sameness. Most of his fans probably didn’t appreciate this, but it makes Dylan one of the most challenging musical figures of the 20th century. This spirit is alive and well in “Self-Portrait.”

    “Self-Portrait” has some very good songs on it: “Alberta”, “Little Sadie”, “I Forgot More than You’ll Ever Know”, “Early Mornin’ Rain”, etc. If you appreciate Dylan’s “country phase” you will like this album. It is uneven and confusing at times, but it was supposedly meant to be an “official bootleg” – Dylan was tired of hearing his unreleased songs on unofficial bootlegs, so he thought he’d do one of his own. The feel of the album in general is completely consistent with this concept.

    There are a few confusing numbers: the live version of “Like A Rolling Stone” is sloppy and taken from an obvious “off” night(Dylan even forgets the lyrics). “The Boxer” (a song apparently about Dylan) is hilarious, as well as “Blue Moon” and “Wigwam.” These could be the result of either Dylan’s sense of humor (he may have wanted to slap Paul Simon back for “The Boxer”) or of experimentation (he had to have experimented a lot when changing musical styles).

    By far the most confusing (and hilarious) part of the album is the cover and sleeve art (which is lost somewhat in the CD booklet – the original LP had a full color gatefold sleeve): Dylan looking up in the sky like a bird just defecated on him, Dylan kneeling down beside a chicken, Dylan posing by a road sign with strong emphasis on the road sign. Are these pictures even worth analyzing?

    The answer to the question: “Is this album a joke?” is probably both yes and no. In some ways it is, and in others it is not. It is definitely challenging (because there are so many ways to interpret what Dylan may have been up to). It contains very good and underrated music. It also contains the spirit of the Albert Hall concert of 1966, though fans who liked that concert probably hated “Self Portrait.” Dylan was again changing, and he didn’t care what we all thought about it. “Self Portrait” is further evidence of Dylan’s unrelenting mission to remain undefined or pigeon-holed into being a one-trick pony.

  • The only real problems with Dylan’s most misunderstood and unheard album were the timing and the title. Were it released as The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 in 2009, it might not have dismayed critics and confused most of the rest of his audience. Dylan has long claimed it was his response to unauthorized, bootleg recordings, and that description fits — from the scattershot sequencing to the wildly eclectic repertoire. Given the current Dylan penchant for unpredictable covers in his live show, mixing up country ballads, folk standards and contemporary favorites and a sprinkling of his own songs seems downright rootsy. I’ve always loved this record, but most interesting is that except for the country crooner’s voice, Self-Portrait isn’t much different from his onstage act today. Be honest: When was the last time you listened to it? Or did you ever? What goes around comes around. Self-Portrait takes us full circle.

    — Leland Rucker

  • dk

    With apologies to Mr. Rucker, I have to say that my opinion of Self Portrait relates to the music, not the title of the album or when and how it was marketed. His assertion that this album wouldn’t have confused Dylan’s audience as much if it had been released in 2009 as part of the Bootleg Series totally misses the point. The very intention of this album was to confuse and dismay his audience. Noted Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin wrote that “According to Dylan, the sense of a man parodying himself on his first album of 1970, Self Portrait, was a deliberate, concerted attempt to dispel much of the iconography surrounding him, once and for all.”

    Zimmy: “That album was put out… [because] at that time… I didn’t like the attention I was getting. I [had] never been a person that wanted attention. And at that time I was getting the wrong kind of attention, for doing things I’d never done. So we released that album to get people off my back. They would not like me anymore. That’s… the reason that album was put out, so people would just stop buying my records, and they did.” [1981]

    I had listened to this album passively at some point in the last year, but I just pulled it off the shelf and I’m spinning it right now. While I don’t think it bears much relation to his current live act – his band today is ultra-tight, and much of Self-Portrait feels hackneyed and tossed off – there’s more to recommend here than I had remembered. ‘Alberta #1’ isn’t bad, and in fact most of side one is pretty passable. But side two is where things start to fall apart, and this album gets progressively worse. ‘Belle Isle’ is an abomination – I hereby nominate it as the single worst piece of crap that Dylan has ever foisted on his fans. Most of side two sounds like outtakes from Nashville Skyline that were better off on the cutting room floor.

    But it’s Dylan’s ‘covers’ of his own material that really induce shudders. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ is amateurish, badly recorded, and hard to swallow. The version of ‘Mighty Quinn’ included here sounds like an after-hours bar jam with too many musicians on stage. And his take on Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer’ sounds drunk and rambling – a musical insult to both Paul Simon and himself. When critics called this album a middle finger to Dylan’s fans, these were the songs they were reacting to.

    I don’t actually think Dylan was trying to juke his audience as much as he might have us believe – that’s revisionist history to preserve his nearly unblemished artistic record. I think that he was searching for his next, post-Nashville sound (and if I were feeling charitable, I might even assert that he was going for some sloppy pre-punk version of himself) but he didn’t find it, struck out miserably, and then finally did regain his stride with the confessional Blood On The Tracks.

    Personally, I don’t like Self Portrait, but I admire Bob Dylan for having the courage to take chances and follow his convictions. Some of his shit leads down dead end alleys, but he’s taken me to enough cool places that I’ll follow the guy practically anywhere…

  • CD

    If you take this record for what it is as opposed to what is isn’t – it’s really rather charming in a lot of simple ways. The strong reaction to this album from Dylan fans and critics at the time had to do with the reality that fans of an artist feel that a musician is obligated to satisfy their expectations. The audience is expecting and demanding a specific set of expectations be fulfilled. If the artist violates that expectation there is going to be hell to pay. The item in question is not trash – it’s simply that the fans are angry and felt Dylan owed them something different. I’m not belittling them for that – that is the nature of the beast when it comes to larger than life musical icons.

    I personally don’t hold it against an artist for stepping outside of the zone of the restrictions of commercialism that they’ve been pigeon holed into. I like diversity as long as the music is well conceived and accomplishes what it set out to do. Yes, to an extent I believe Dylan made this record to scrape away the syncophants, but that is not the same think as saying it’s a shitty record. It’s another interesting side of the man that you may or may not have a taste for. I found the ‘crooning’ Dylan to be a rather pleasant diversion.

  • I dig his defiant, elegant performance of “Copper Kettle.”

  • Jugg

    I love this record. I remember the first tim I heard it, being a Dylan fan I knew “this one is shit.” But gave it a try, only listening the songs, not over-thinking. And I really liked it. It’s obviously too long for a “common pop-record” in a sense, but, I think there’s a lot that goes for what it’s meant to say. But I’m not saying it has this hidden, cryptic message that tells us how to live. I think Dylan too thinks this is not good, but he feels comfortable releasing things that are not 10/10. Overall, I think it has great songs, a good sounding mood and goes from a good party-record to a contemplative album.

  • Ryan


    You all seem to condemn Dylan for this album. In part, he was trying to display his ability in a variety of different musical tones. To which I will admit, not all are great by any means, however there are a number of exceptional Dylan tracks on here. This double LP has so much great music on it. Days of 49 being one of the greatest, along with the Little Sadie tracks and Copper Kettle. Amazing, as well as live version of Rolling Stone, and a Dylan version of The Boxer which is not entirely bad. As well I Forgot More is an amazing track. Overall, I think the album is extremely underrated, and any TRUE fan of Dylan would appreciate this varied style. Thanks for your time.



  • Paul

    It Hurts Me Too has always been a favourite of mine.

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