By 1970, Bob Dylan had already weathered his share of highs and lows. He had gone electric in '65 at Newport and survived the backlash. He released "Blonde on Blonde," a masterpiece, the next year, not long before a motorcycle accident sidelined him. And when he returned to recording, he ventured into a rootsy country sound on the albums "John Wesley Harding" and "Nashville Skyline."
Then he lost his way with "Self Portrait''; at least that was the critical stance upon the double album's release in 1970. It was arguably Dylan's first piecemeal effort, an odds-and-ends collection of covers of traditional songs and modern pop and folk hits. Bob Dylan doing Paul Simon's "The Boxer" was not exactly what his disciples wanted to hear at that point.
It landed with a thud. Critic Greil Marcus famously began his Rolling Stone review of the album like this: "What is this [expletive that rhymes with hit]?"
Out on Tuesday, "Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol. 10" answers that question while casting that era, which also included the album "New Morning," in a new light. The two-disc set, which will also be released on vinyl, collects 35 rarities, demos, and previously unreleased songs, packaged with an extensive booklet of archival photos and essays.
Even Marcus has come around to that phase of Dylan's music. Writing in the liner notes, he appears to have changed his tune: " 'Another Self Portrait' opens up as new territory: roads shooting out in all directions."
He's right. There is so much to behold and treasure here, for both the Dylan diehard and the casual fan. You could spend an afternoon comparing the various alternate takes and abandoned ideas with the original versions, but that's unnecessary.
The joy of "Another Self Portrait" is hearing the music for its own merit. This is Dylan at his most tenderhearted, finding his way around songs that clearly made an impression on him. Because so much of the material is traditional or written by others, it allows you to ruminate on Dylan's interpretive skills.
Anyone who claims Dylan can't sing, or that he's not the most soothing of singers, has never heard his previously unreleased version of "Pretty Saro" included here. His voice is soft, delicate, as if it'll buckle under the weight of the song's heartache over losing his beloved.
It's also a window into the way Dylan works. You hear different renditions and false starts, but other times it's hard to see why a song didn't end up as the album version. "Alberta #3," presumably the third take of the song that appeared on "Self Portrait," really cooks with a down-home jamboree vibe, with Dylan's harmonica right up front and the female backup singers cooing ever so. Eventually they lose the thread and the magic dissipates altogether. Even then it's worth hearing.
A skeletal demo of "Went to See the Gypsy" loses the funky undertones of the version that appeared on "New Morning" and instead tells the story in the plainest of terms. Working with less, it's even more affecting. (Another take, with Dylan on electric piano, is more reverent and solemn.)
Dylan accompanies himself on piano on "Spanish Is the Loving Tongue," and it's the kind of intimate performance you fantasize was captured after the studio had closed and the lights were shut off. It's beautiful.
The second disc focuses more on outtakes from "New Morning," plus a pair of searing live performances with the Band at the Isle of Wight in '69. Their take on "Highway 61 Revisited" barrels out of the speakers like a rodeo bronco, untamed and thrilling. "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," from that same festival date, should come with its own little shot of whiskey; it casts a boozy spell.
Meanwhile, the title track from "New Morning" is heard with horn overdubs that add a considerable amount of exuberance. "Copper Kettle," no longer soaked in string parts, is a revelation: David Bromberg's guitar dances around Dylan's as if tracing its outline, and Al Kooper's organ playing seeps into the mix as smooth as silk.
Arriving toward the end of summer, "Another Self Portrait" feels perfectly suited for the type of reflection that accompanies autumn. Having seen Dylan in concert so many times in recent years, and realizing that an impenetrable rasp long ago replaced his fluid croon, I had forgotten he once sounded like this. It's nice to be reminded.