Although Bob Dylan would admit to the biographical structure of great albums like Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited, it is his genuine attempt to capture his own structure and mind that falls hardest of all. Self Portrait is the defiant “joke” of the Dylan catalogue. A well-meaning intention behind it, the Voice of a Generation looks to end that very label that sallied his career for a decade. Critics are frequent to use that title for Zimmerman, primarily because it is a synonym for Dylan’s stage name, and the analytics will tire of the word Dylan cropping up in the word processor time and time again. But it is Self Portrait that, while sounding shaky and unrefined as an album concept, reminds audiences and critics that the man at the centre of this music is just that, a man.
Alberta #1 gives good insight into this. Relying more on the crooning croaks of his Nashville Skyline and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan days, a shunning of electric instruments on a handful of tracks provides Dylan with something new for the turn of the century. His vocal range is impressive and the tone of the tracks dig deep into the Willie Nelson influences of old. That swaying, slow country charm to I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know slots Dylan closer to John Wayne and Johnny Cash than a pioneer of the electric music movement. It is this return to the roots and influences that make Self Portrait, the second of Dylan’s double album after Blonde on Blonde, so interesting.
That examination of self is what makes Self Portrait so defiant and interesting. Dylan regroups with backing musicians The Band and takes down the perceived public persona he had grown at the time. On reflection and with the benefit of hindsight, Self Portrait feels a bit slapdash in places. A live recording here, an unknowable track there. It all comes together supremely well, but the consistency is askew and a surprising change of pace for the singer. Dylan does well to put to rest the inclinations people had for projecting their idea of who he was onto him. This ramshackle collection of tracks is an inspired way of dealing with that, even if some tracks like opener All the Tired Horses or Little Sadie leave much to be desired.
It is not a strong album, but with the addition of context, it is an understandable creation. Never quite hitting the heights of the golden age, but still perfectly listenable and quite enjoyable in sporadic pockets. When the artist truly reflects on where he is at in his career, the public perception, and how he wishes to change it, Self Portrait comes to life. Dylan cuts his losses, tries to clamour back some of the self-respect that the “Voice of a Generation” label dragged away from him and hits back with a satirical take on his own work. Days of ‘49 is a real treat, the orchestral accompaniment of Belle Isle astonishing and the stories within Copper Kettle inspiringly odd. He may have electrified one half of an audience and electrocuted the other with his stirring work in the 1960s, but Dylan wishes for a moment of clarity and peace, and gets just that with Self Portrait.