Dylan’s Croons Boost New ‘Self Portait,’ Fail to Save It

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan, second from right, with bandmembers during the Hop Farm music festival in Paddock Wood, Kent. Photographer: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Aug. 27 (Bloomberg) -- A new Bob Dylan song: It’s called “Pretty Saro.” Delicate acoustic guitar. Dylan’s voice, so often wrecked or croaky, is here crooning, even appealing.

It isn’t quite what it seems. “Pretty Saro” is a lovely arrangement of a traditional English tune dating from the 1700s. It was recorded 43 years ago with David Bromberg on guitar and left in the studio vaults.

Listen without prejudice to this ballad, just two minutes long and one of many released today as the latest part of the “Bootleg Series” of offcuts and live recordings.

“Another Self Portrait,” the 10th title in the series, has a tough job: to rehabilitate “Self Portrait” from 1970.

The man who had written some of the best rock LPs of the 1960s, including “Blonde on Blonde” and “Highway 61 Revisited,” had apparently lost the plot after a mysterious motorbike crash.

“John Wesley Harding” and “Nashville Skyline” were patchy, so too “The Basement Tapes” when finally revealed in 1975.

“Self Portrait,” a double-album collection of cover versions, was castigated. We all wanted to hear more of Dylan’s complex wordplay, more “Visions of Johanna.”

Instead we got a big ragbag of throwaway tracks such as “In Search of Little Sadie,” which any old folkie could do; weird versions of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Mornin’ Rain” and Paul Simon’s “The Boxer”; and live numbers from the Isle of Wight.

Juvenile Daub

Songs about other people, written by other people: the LP’s title seemed only to refer to Dylan’s amusingly juvenile daub of himself on the front. (The new version comes with another Dylan sketch, almost as bad.) Stung by the criticism, Dylan rushed out the much-better “New Morning” months later.

“Another Self Portrait” comes in two and four-disc versions. Enjoyable extras include a take on Tom Paxton’s “Annie’s Gonna Sing Her Song” and alternate versions of Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “If Not for You.”

We now get the context better: Dylan, living a quiet family life, was trying something new out of the limelight and playing music he loved. He said it was a piece of self-iconoclasm after the “spokesman of a generation” hype.

This knowledge, plus the fine new material, goes some way to redeeming one of his worst efforts. Rating: **.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         So-so
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include George Walden on books, Farah Nayeri on movies and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.

To contact the writer on the story: Mark Beech in London at mbeech@bloomberg.net or http://twitter.com/Mark_Beech.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.