Best New Albums 2013: #2 – Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series, Volume 10: Another Self Portrait

Running through the end of the month (with a short Christmas break), I’ll be running a post each weekday taking a look at one of my top 20 albums of the year, slowly working my way down to number one. Some I’ve reviewed previously for Bearded Gentlemen Music – I’ll provide links where necessary – and the entire list will eventually end up there, too. But for most of these records, this is the first time I’m writing about them at length, making this a chance to explain my choices in a little greater detail. Last year’s list is no longer online, but for 2011′s Best Canadian Music click here and for 2010′s list, click here.

#2: Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Volume 10: Another Self Portrait

Back in the 60s, Dylan was it. Maybe a few more artists sold more records, maybe a few pushed the limits of rock a little further, but nobody mattered more to music. As pretty much every critic has said, Dylan’s impact on music is almost incalculable. People turned to Dylan for anthems, even as Dylan said he wasn’t a spokesperson. People looked to him for meanings, even when he said sometimes he didn’t have them.

After a much-publicized motorcycle crash and a couple of country albums, critics were increasingly annoyed: what happened to the artist they idolized? Their disappointment climaxed with 1970’s Self Portrait, especially when Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus infamously asked “What is this shit?” (Funny: I’d have the same reaction to his turgid book Dead Elvis)

The album didn’t tank though. Even without any memorable songs, it actually sold better than any of Dylan’s past few albums. And a few months later, his New Morning went some lengths to restoring his critical ratings, too. The critics were quick to move on from Self Portrait, painting it as misstep, a failed experiment or, more often than not, “hey let’s talk about something else instead.”

Which makes Volume Ten of The Bootleg Series maybe the most essential one yet.

Previously, this series has looked at demos and live performances. There’s one of a messy, powerful gig in 1966 where the audience seems intent on disrupting his electric band; there’s one showing all the demos he recorded for Whitmark. There’s even one of a 1964 show where Joan Baez sings a few songs with him. By and large, they’re all good, even the demos one.

But this is a different beast. With a multitude of alternate versions, outtakes and loose material from the same period, Another Self Portrait is exactly that: another look at an overlooked album. I don’t know if it blows the original away – truth be told, I haven’t the heart to sit down and compare the two, since I like both already – but it certainly changes the way we look at this music: it’s folksy and charming, fun and lighthearted. Occasionally glimpses of the older, spooky Dylan show through. But largely, it’s the work of a man who’s recording the kind of music that inspires him and doing his best to create his own music in that vein.

Songs here reach as far back as The Basement Tapes (when will that Bootleg Series ever come out?) and as far forward as some 1971 sessions. But by and large, it focuses on 1970, when Dylan was recording songs that’d end up on either New Morning or Self Portrait; as it turns out, there wasn’t a lot of difference between the two.

Some of the songs are covers, others have multiple versions. But nearly everything’s a killer here. Personally, I like both takes Time Passes Slowly (this has to be his most underrated song), the electric piano version of Went to See the Gypsy, the two rollicking live numbers recorded with The Band and the version of New Morning with a horn section. But on these two CDs, there’s nary a wasted moment. My biggest fault with the thing is that there isn’t more: where’s the stuff from the Johnny Cash TV show, the leftovers from Nashville Skyline? I guess there’s always Volume 11.




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