The brilliance of Bob Dylan is that he, like many great artists, refuses to yield to any influence other than his own muse. When the world expects a zig, Dylan zags with glee, his almost proto-punk iconoclasm of going electric at the height of his acoustic powers typified that, and he has continued in that vein forevermore.
This daring attitude, coupled with superlative songwriting ability, has canonised him among the creative circles of popular culture, but there is, inevitably, a flipside. Thankfully, this flipside is one we have very rarely seen in his career. Nevertheless, the brilliant winding road of Dylan’s songbook has a few treacherously deep potholes.
Self Portrait was pretty much the first of which. Since his debut in 1962, Dylan produced nine studio albums in a solid gold run of brilliance. The albums he produced during the sixties were not only era-defining but culture-defining in general. They helped to shape everything that followed. By the time the seventies came around he was still only 29, and being crowned a king had taken its toll, as had a motorbike accident, and the tie-ins of a tumultuous decade.
This wave of external pressures and all the grabbing hands that wanted a piece of him, left him tormented. The ubiquitous “voice of a generation” label was one that he particularly hated, not least because it led to anti-Vietnam War protestors storming his family property in a rather threatening call to have him join them in direct action.
Self Portrait was his first back-turning response to all the hoodoo that howled around him. Gone were the acerbic societal songs that have given him his name, and in their place was 24 songs consisting mainly of covers, traditional songs or reworkings of his own tracks barely old enough to warrant such treatment.
At the time, the double record was lambasted by critics, including the now-iconic line that Rolling Stone led with: “What is this shit?”.
What it was, in Dylan’s own words, was a statement that “I wasn’t going to be anybody’s puppet and I figured this record would put an end to that,” He told Cameron Crowe. “I was just so fed up with all that ‘who people thought I was’ nonsense.”
However, there is no doubting that this response and severing of any imagined puppet strings was a tortuously tired and laboured one. Only a matter of months later, he would once again disavow any political involvement with New Morning, but the album was a masterpiece.
New Morning contained songs that found Dylan at his introspective best once more, dealing with a deep personal roar rising from the void and placing it in some of his most considered melodies to date at that time. Self Portrait, on the other hand, was just weird and even more so upon release. He was an idol who had only vacated his throne but seeming smashed his crown.
The failure of the record, however, is entirely understandable. As Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1984, peace was simply too hard for him to come by to shoulder enough creative space for him to create a record, he had moved to Woodstock and once word got out he was literally besieged at all hours. “It was like a wave of insanity breakin’ loose around the house day and night,” he said.
Adding: “You’d come in the house and find people there, people comin’ through the woods, at all hours of the day and night, knockin’ on your door. It was really dark and depressing. And there was no way to respond to all this, you know? It was as if they were suckin’ your very blood out. I said, ‘Now wait, these people can’t be my fans. They just can’t be.’ And they kept comin’. We had to get out of there.”
With all of that howling around him, he decided to turf out a record that was essentially practice tracks. “My own bootleg record,” he once described it as. The issue was that obviously, most of his fans all around the globe had not been storming his property, and for them, it was confusing as to why they had just cashed out on a double record of hastily clumped together covers. And it is this detail that makes it a strong contender to be his worst record.
In truth, it is fairly easy listening for the most part, and there are even a few discernibly highlights. These highlights would probably have been heralded as proof that even his outtakes showed his skill if they had actually been a bootleg album, but at the height of his soaring symphony, it was a dejected slump that hit the wrong note with many fans. Horror-show tracks like ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ and a few dud albums have followed, but at least they seemed to fail in search of something.
Self Portrait, by contrast, almost seemed to fail by design. Thus, while it might not be the last record over the finish line, it is perhaps the biggest blemish on his otherwise almost unrivalled artistic integrity.