Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Better as a Single: "Self Portrait" by Bob Dylan

I've said before that there's something polarising about the double album: most of them inspire either awe or ire in the minds of critics. There is rarely a space in between. How extreme can this get? Well, Bob Dylan has only released two 'double albums' in his career (with the caveat that he has released double lives, double compilations and CD-era albums that were released on vinyl as doubles): one is regularly touted not only as Bob Dylan's best album but one of the very best albums in popular music history. And the other one, released a scant few years after that one, is not only panned with few exceptions as Bob Dylan's worst album but also regularly features highly on lists of worst albums after.

How extreme is that difference then? From the very top to the very bottom. Double albums can do that to you. Except it's my opinion that Blonde on Blonde is vastly overrated and Self Portrait vastly underrated. I'm not going to pretend the latter is a better album than the former: it's not. But both of them mix moments of rare beauty with indulgent knock-offs, albeit in a different ratio. The main difference, apart from genre, is reach. On Blonde on Blonde Dylan is grasping heights he frequently can't quite touch, but the effort is fascinating to hear. On Self Portrait, Dylan is determined to 'signify' as little as possible and has made a conscious effort to strip his music of ambition. And in this case, he frequently can't stop his natural greatness from shining through, but the effort is frustrating to hear. What makes Self Portrait a failure is not the large amount of terrible music it features so much as the moments of greatness whose shine is dulled by the company they keep. Perfect, then, for some pruning.

Dylan recorded Self Portrait at a time of extreme dissatisfaction with his public persona. I think he was bothered by the unquestioning adoration he appeared to receive whatever he did. The period between the two doubles is characterised by a constant simplification and a constant re-evaluation of his art: it's a huge fall from "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" to "Country Pie", but I would bet that Dylan found he didn't really like his word-fest electric songs that much (though he's constantly returned to them in live performance) and found himself envying the songwriters who were appreciated for simpler values like hummable melodies and catchy turns of phrase. I have no doubt that the songs he chose to cover here were not only the kinds of songs he was playing on his own record player in Woodstock but also the songs he wished he could be celebrated for composing. Dylan being Dylan, I think he came to appreciate, and return to, his strengths, but it was a long time coming, and I think to the extent that this album really is a 'self-portrait', it speaks volumes about how he saw his career at the time.

Is it an act of self-sabotage, as he himself has claimed? It can't be: there is laziness, bad singing, thoughtless castoffs and robotic lack of feeling here. But that's all mixed in with genuinely strong, considered material. At best, this is an attempt at a good album that was sabotaged in the end when he couldn't pull it off. That, or a famously weak self-critical ability, might explain some of the frustratingly poor moments on the album. The critical drubbing this album has received is deserved inasmuch as releasing unlistenable material alongside better stuff is insulting to the audience and allows critics to review the worst while overlooking the best. But worst album ever? Not even close.

The extent to which I think the critical views of Dylan's two doubles are exaggerated can be summed up like this: I don't claim that Self Portrait is a better album or even an especially good album. But if you put together a single disc of the worst of Blonde on Blonde and put together a single disc of the best of Self Portrait, I contend that the Self Portrait album would be better. This is that album.

Self Portrait

Side one
  1. All the Tired Horses (Dylan) (3:12)
  2. Days of '49 (Alan Lomax, John Lomax, Frank Warner) (5:27)
  3. Let It Be Me (Gilbert Bécaud, Mann Curtis, Pierre Delanoë) (3:00)
  4. Take Me as I Am (Or Let Me Go) (Boudleaux Bryant) (3:03)
  5. Take a Message to Mary (Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant) (2:46)
  6. I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know (Cecil A. Null) (2:23)
Side two
  1. Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight) (Alfred Frank Beddoe) (3:34)
  2. Living the Blues (Dylan) (2:42)
  3. It Hurts Me Too (Traditional, arranged by Dylan) (3:15)
  4. Blue Moon (Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers) (2:29)
  5. Gotta Travel On (Paul Clayton, Larry Ehrlich, David Lazar, Tom Six) (3:08)
  6. Wigwam (Dylan) (3:09) 

All the Tired Horses: keep (side one, track one)

'Moxie' is just one word to describe what it took for Bob Dylan to start his album off with this song. Reviled down the years, this is admittedly a genuinely shocking start to the album. What I hear when I listen to this song is an 'anti-Bob Dylan' track: to date, Bob Dylan songs have lived and died by his words and his voice: this one has the voices of other people singing a single sentence, as artless as possible, over and over. Yet what Bob Dylan songs have been criticised as lacking - a commitment to detail, to arrangement and instrumentation, this has in droves. This is a composition built around the very things Bob Dylan compositions tend to overlook, and whatever Dylan's motives for attempting such a project, I can call it an unqualified success: after all, the song is gorgeous, in a non-ironic way. There is much beauty in this song, a beauty of a different but equally legitimate nature to the beauty of, say, "Mr. Tambourine Man".

Whatever Dylan's motives in the creation of this song, its placement at the beginning of the album is no accident: it is designed to be provocative and challenging. And ergo, brilliant. No punches are pulled, and you can't realistically make it past this track unaware that this is not your father's Dylan album. So opening position for me too.

Alberta #1: lose

A slow tempo can make a song mysterious, fragile, passionate, sensual, haunting, peaceful, brooding or calming. Or alternately it can just make it boring. I don't think this album contains as much 'breathing softly' as Greil Marcus once famously claimed it did, but it does here and on the carbon-copy "#2" as well.

I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know: keep (side one, track six)

A fully competent, flawless take on the Countrypolitan genre. It may have nothing at all to do with what makes Dylan Dylan, but if you can set aside thoughts of who it is doing the singing, is it any good? Emphatically, yes it is. It's well-sing and well-performed, tapping into the currents of a musical tradition Dylan fans may not connect with but Dylan himself clearly does. If this is the kind of music that moved Dylan at the time, and if in recording it he was hoping to give his listeners a taste of what he felt listening to this song, then not only is it a success but it's also a brave and generous public service.

For some reason, you walk away from this album saying, 'boy, there's a lot of Nashville here' - on further inspection, there's not, but that's the impression it leaves. So much so that even though there's not that much slick-country on my single, it still threatens to drown out the rest of the album. It was a calculated decision to devote most of the second half of side one to steel guitars, and a risky one, but it was the only way I could give the album a respectable flow. Never in a million years, though, would I have anticipated closing my act one with this particular ditty.

Days of '49: keep (side one, track two)

At five and a half minutes, this is "Like a Rolling Stone" length and a good deal more ambitious than the rest of this album. As a contribution to the social-history subgenre of the folk tradition, it's more palatable to Dylan fans than syrupy love songs - ultimately, this is exactly the performer many (most?) of his fans want him to be. Yet this is not merely a public service: Dylan clearly loves this song and inhabits it totally, giving a performance so commanding that even he is knocked out by the authority of his delivery. "Whoa," he proclaims as the end, and so do we. A finger in the light-switch on an album otherwise powered by double A batteries.

Since there's so much country on side one and so much more 'trad' on side two, this song might be misplaced. But it deserves a prominent placement, and the one-two of this after "All the Tired Horses" sets listeners up to expect a much better album than they actually get. How cruel am I?

Early Morning Rain: lose

I'm not really sure what Gordon Lightfoot has to do with Bob Dylan, really: one is known for convention-demolishing thought-dreams that sweated ambition, the other for small-scale ditties, sturdy and hummable but largely empty. To that end, then, Dylan covering Lightfoot on the present album makes more sense than Dylan covering Lightfoot at any other phase of his career, and he covers him appropriately here: pleasant but signifying nothing.

In Search of Little Sadie: lose

Tough as the competition surely is, the most baffling aspect of this entire project might just be the two contrasting versions of this song separated on CD by merely one track. Both of them are horrid but for entirely different reasons: the present version is filled to the brim with creativity, dynamics and mood but is technically so horrible as to be unlistenable; the later version is faster and technically precise but so robotic and lacking in feeling that it is ultimately equally unlistenable for different reasons. Form versus feeling, the pairing serves as a great jumping-off point for a discussion about what makes music enjoyable - you could tell much about a person by asking which one he or she preferred. But ultimately all of that is academic, as neither stand up to repeated listening.

Let It Be Me: keep (side one, track three)

When it comes to this particular track, I think I get a vague sense of why the split exists between this album's vehement haters and its timid supporters. Inasmuch as talent and craft are different gifts (and I think it's undeniable that they are), in the expression-is-all world of contemporary music, a world where the importance given to unrestrained creative expression is something largely of Dylan's own creation, craft is given scant consideration: seen as a lesser art, something perhaps belonging to the world of pop music. Certainly not the kinds of music Dylan fans cleave to. In other words, Self Portrait is barely even comparable to his other works, being a different form of expression built from a different skill set - and by no means entirely of Dylan's own creation. This particular song is a perfect example: a French chanson with a gorgeous melody, expertly navigated by Team Dylan with especially lovely guitar throughout. It's very skillfully crafted music, and there's the rub. Dylan fans want talent, not craft, and there's scant evidence of talent here. If you can deal with that, though, the results are beautiful. This is an expert landscape hung in a gallery that normally displays abstract expressionist works.

I didn't intentionally put so much from disc one on my side one and disc two on my side two. I didn't even realise I'd done it at all until now. But this is very carefully places to bridge between the down-to-earth "Days of '49" and the Nashville stuff. Couldn't have found a better song to do it.

Little Sadie: lose

Most of my discussion for this track is above, but I have to wonder if the hopped-up speed and bouncy vocals on this album are intentionally a tongue-in-cheek parody of the murder ballad's words.

Woogie Boogie: lose

A god-awful throwaway instrumental 12-bar jam, the kind of go-nowhere stuff musicians pass the time with while waiting for the singer to take the stage. Could go on for twenty minutes, two long even at two. And it's horribly recorded, with tinny guitars and an ugly squawking saxophone. And no melody whatsoever.

Belle Isle: lose

Pretty orchestration on this Irish ditty, which may or may not have a beautiful melody - I can't tell because Dylan seems to barely know the song and spends his time wandering around aimlessly. What might have been a nice inclusion and a curious change of pace instead trots by without distinction.

Living the Blues: keep (side two, track two)

As the album's only vocal studio original, this song carries a lot of weight: people will it to carry the torch of 'what Dylan represents', and of course it's horribly unsuited to the task, being a throwaway rock-and-roll pastiche of no more consequence than anything else here. But to dislike this song is to misunderstand its intent: as empty fun, it works. And why shouldn't Dylan be allowed some empty fun every now and then?

There's a strange math that I used here: my 12-track single is a cycle, repeated four times, of slow-fast-slow. So there are only four fast songs here, and they're kept far from each other. I showcase this by putting it directly after what most would consider the album highlight. I'm such a nice guy.

Like a Rolling Stone (live): lose

Just a few weeks after Woodstock , the epochal festival that Dylan chose not to participate in despite it being held in practically his backyard, he played a brief set at the Isle of Wight in south England, his first on-stage appearance since his legendary 1966 accident. Using his country-and-western crooning voice and putting the Band through some rather easy-listening motions led to a showering of criticism at the time, and the decision to include four songs from that concert, and by no means four of the best performances, is the main evidence for the 'official bootleg' and 'intentional sabotage' theories regarding this album. I'm inclined to the latter, or perhaps the 'filler' theory. In this particular case, though, if this mumbling, flat, lifeless and scandalously flubbed performance of Dylan's most iconic moment of greatness is not an act of sabotage or demystification (and I really can't see how it can't be), then Dylan must have the worst sense in artistic history of his own relevance. It's fine that this album doesn't aim to replicate his glory days, but recasting his moments of glory in the mould of this frustrating project is every bit the slap in the face of Dylan lovers that many claim this entire project to be. Even if this track had any quality to it, mind you, I wouldn't include it - haphazardly mixing in live tracks is one of the greatest symptoms of double-album-syndrome, and one that needs to be cut at the root. My single-length "Self Portrait" is strictly a studio creation, I assure you.

Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight): keep (side two, track one)

Absolutely none of the critical hammering usually applied to this album is applied to the current, unanimously praised, track. So it's worth considering what makes this recording, superficially similar in (syrupy) instrumentation, so much more praiseworthy than the others. And personally I think it has to do with two overlapping things: one, the genre, which as a historically-considered 'plight of the common man' modern folk tune is very much the genre that brought Dylan to fame and 'greatness'; and two, the emotion in the performance, wonderfully sung with all of the grace and passion Dylan's blunt instrument of a voice can muster. And despite Dylan's obvious love of, and attraction to, the critically-maligned genres on display elsewhere on this album, it's tough to avoid the conclusion that number two here is a direct result of number one. Whatever it is, though, that moves him so about this song is ultimately what moves us too. And the fact that the strings and female voices do so much here to enhance the end-product proves how ridiculous it is to criticise this album merely for having them in the arrangements.

Like every other aspect of this maddening double, the original album's sequencing shows brilliance and lunkheadedness in equal parts. Surrounding "Let it Be Me" with different versions of the same song? Lunkheaded. Starting act two with this gem? Brilliant. Who am I to dissent?

Gotta Travel On: keep (side two, track five)

That spark. You know what it is, that indescribable 'something' that makes good music good. We buy Dylan music to witness the spark of the creator, whereas on display here is the spark of the interpreter - but that's no reason to dismiss this album. The better reason to dismiss this album is that all too frequently it's something like starting a fire with wet straw: most of the sparks just fizzle out ineffectually. Presenting the wet squibs alongside the brushfires is brave, but ultimately diminishes what is worthwhile about this album. The present song is obviously designed as a vacuous show-stopper, a foot-stomping singalong, but Dylan starts it through half-opened eyes - seemingly adrift, another example of 'breathing softly'. Somehow, though, mid-song, that spark manages to catch fire and burn up the remainder of the song. Too little too late? Perhaps, but at least by the song's end we're reminded that Dylan still knows how to have a good time. When he feels like it.

I put this as the, ahem, 'climax' because it seems like a hokey old-timey curtain-call. The album finishes with a much better song, but before that, you get this. Good night, ladies and gentlemen, and drive home safely.

Blue Moon: keep (side two, track four)

People hate this track mostly, I think, because it strays outside the stylistic bounds of what people perceive a Bob Dylan song ought to be. Yet Rodgers and Hart's evergreen is so timeless precisely because it can be adapted to pretty much any genre you want. Dylan's take on it is, in my opinion, well-considered, well-sung and effective. The fiddle throughout the track brings it from pops territory partially into hoedown territory, and the genre-mixing is artful.

Perhaps my most controversial inclusion, and I found it hard to place. Side two is more 'organic' than side one, and even though this is a standard, the fiddle makes it hoedown stuff. So in between the blues and the Gene Autry-style tip-of-the-hat? Home at last.

The Boxer: lose

One of the funniest tracks on the disc for sure, this is Bob taking on Paul Simon, the 1960s most successful Dylan-wannabe, by recording a song widely believed to be 'about' Dylan. Almost sardonic in intent, really, and his double-tracked Bob-on-Bob vocals are hilarious yet oddly effective. Amongst the country and folk ditties, Simon's ambition sticks out like a sore thumb, but the rudimentary accompaniment brings it sadly down to earth. It would have been a funnier joke if he'd just done it completely a capella, perhaps with an entire chorus of overdubbed Bobs.

Quinn the Eskimo (the Mighty Quinn) (live): lose

This is by far the most well-known Self Portrait track, and my fatwa on live recordings ensures its exclusion. For the sake of a unified listening experience, I stand by that decision, but I have to concede that ultimately it deprives the album of one of its few great moments. For great this is, not because the song is up to much but because the performance is delivered with such chaotic, devil-may-care abandon that it's impossible not to be caught up in the obvious delight Dylan is taking in being on stage with friends engaged in an act of epic silliness. Dylan's singing is absolutely horrible, but it's tough to see that as anything but a strength on this song.

Take Me as I Am (or Let Me Go): keep (side one, track four)

This is about as straight a Nashville track as it gets. I think we expect Dylan to gravitate towards that kind of country and western music that is closest to folk: that Appalachian ballad tradition. In truth, then, the tinkling piano and cooing vocalists represent 'selling out' every bit as much as Richard Manuel's organ and the streams of feedback did at Newport. In each case, merely rejecting the results out of hand based on how they sound is reactionary - the exact adjective many of this album's detractors use to describe it. I would describe this, instead, as well-performed and effective. Obviously it's not as impressive a great-leap-forward or as aesthetically rewarding an accomplishment as 'going electric' was, but this is bad only if you judge it by what it is not. Judged by what it is, it's quite good.

How I outpace the original for bizarreness? By having an actual set of three songs associated with the Everly Brothers and their writer Boudleaux Bryant. An Everlys song, a Bryant song, an Everly/Bryant song. Ha! It's awkward, but there you go. This is the big muddy of Countrypolitan, so it's side one, track four for you, mister.

Take a Message to Mary: keep (side one, track five)

More than any other track here, this represents why I feel the critics get this album all wrong. They're offended by the fact that it is an Everly Brothers song, and by the admittedly cheesy 'opening' eleven seconds, sung by the backup singers. Yet as the song progresses, Dylan nails it completely, capturing the song's mood and intent perfectly. The song drives along with determined purpose and a great sense of momentum, and sends its heartfelt and moving message home with no small sense of purpose.

Columbia put the two Bryant songs together, and so do I. In any case, as an uptempo number it could only take position two or five. So number five it is, side one. Not too country, but surrounded by country.

It Hurts Me Too: keep (side two, track three)

The 12-bar acoustic blues tradition that this song represents exists in a place where standards of 'authorship' and 'copyright' are defined differently, where performances are cobbled together from the collective unconscious. Of course this isn't a Dylan composition but a spontaneous reinterpretation. It's good - solid, musical, enjoyable - but not great. Higher than the standards of many a performer, sure, but not high enough to compel me to listen to it, or rather to actually think about it as I'm listening. Adequate aural wallpaper. Is that a compliment?

This was one of my final choices for inclusion. I think it belongs, but I was quite on the fence about it. "Living the Blues" is lightweight boogie, but the trio that starts off side two feels 'organic' to me, so it's another 'set', so to speak. First you live the blues, then you hear the blues. I guess.

Minstrel Boy (live): lose

Some people rate this song highly. It stands out as one of only two Dylan original lyrics on this album. But all I hear is the Band struggling through a half-written song they appear to barely know. It wouldn't make the cut even if it was a studio recording. or then again, maybe it would. Slim pickin's, right?

She Belongs to Me (live): lose

I must confess that I don't like the studio original of this song very much. It's a pat little 12-bar with knock-off lyrics of the sort that fans pore over but I imagine Dylan knocked off with little thought regarding meaning. Joan Baez, blah blah, who cares. The result is a charmless creation that inexplicably overshadows the gorgeous "Love Minus Zero / No Limit" it shares a side of vinyl with. Here, it's done a bit countryish. But it's still just a banal 12-bar. Plus it's live, so bye bye love.

Wigwam: keep (side two, track six)

One of the most snickered-at songs here, "Wigwam" is an excellent track in my opinion: an evocative, cinematic piece with a gorgeous atmosphere and an expressive melody. The 'la-la-la' vocals Dylan provides here as an accompaniment to the brass on this otherwise instrumental recording is what gets eyes a-rolling as a presumed lapse in taste, but it's my guess that the vocals served as a guide for brass to be dubbed over at a later date - making the end-result as much Bob Johnston's song as Bob Dylan's. But if the melody really is an improvised doddle sketched out in the studio, that says an awful lot about Dylan's natural gift as a melodist.

It's only Dylan's perversity that keeps this from being his closer. And it really should have been, since "Alberta #2" has no need to exist. It's kin to "All the Tired Horses", and in the movie that this album could soundtrack, that's the opening credits, and this is the closing credits - and the slow stroll into the sunset. I wonder if anyone would pay to watch that particular movie?

Alberta #2: lose

Starting and ending your album with contrasting different versions of the same song is a gambit that has served many a musician well. Making the two versions all but indistinguishable from each other is, however, not, and doing so ends the album on a note just as bizarre as any of a dozen or so other notes here.

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