Up until last week, if you had asked me what my favorite Dylan album is (you do ask questions like that, don’t you?) I’d have said either “World Gone Wrong” or “Tell Tale Signs,” in any of its incarnations.
I’m not being stubbornly contrarian; I know “Blonde On Blonde” or “Blood On The Tracks” or “John Wesley Harding” is his greatest album, I know that his run of greatest albums was from 1965 to 1968, I know “Blood,” “Desire” and the Rolling Thunder Review, the mid-70s resurgence, was Dylan’s other greatest moment.
Dylan’s late life comeback – a series of albums that started with “Oh Mercy,” sputtered for a while longer and caught fire with 1997’s “Time Out Of Mind” – has its adherents, me among them, but there’s always a sense that it’s great in reference to the earlier great periods, that “Modern Times” and “Love And Theft” are fine, sure, but they benefit from the heft, the weight of all that came before them.
Well, yeah, but as for me, I just plain like the newer stuff better. I was a little too young to catch the Dylan of the 60s, and was much more suited to Springsteen in the 70s. As my own middle age has ground on, I’ve found “Old Dylan” to be a fine travelling companion. He’s my Dylan, just like Basement Tapes Dylan belongs to Greil Marcus or Manchester Union Hall Dylan belongs to a lot of people a few years older than I am.
Anyway, I want to add the new archival release “Another Self Portrait” to my short list of favorite Dylan albums. Like “Tell Tale Signs,” it’s an after the fact reconstruction of a period in Dylan’s career, in this case the generally unliked “Self Portrait/New Morning” era. Unlike “Tell Tale Signs,” which deepened one’s understanding and appreciation of an already favored period, “Another Self Portrait” provokes a rethink. Like “Tell Tale Signs,” it’s a collection of alternate takes, unused songs, one-offs and fragments. Much of the material is better than what made it onto “Self Portrait” in 1970, and all of it hangs together better.
That’s the big thing: like “Tell Tale Signs,” “Another Self Portrait” is better than the sum of its parts. It sounds like an entirely intentional album, like it was meant to fit together the way it does from the beginning. Of course that’s an illusion, but it speaks to how coherent the material – despite this supposedly just being Dylan messing around in the studio – is.
The other thing to savor about “Another Self Portrait” is Dylan’s voice: he never sounded better, fuller, more able to shift gears.
One other thing: if you’re a Dylan fan but not a specialist, this album should change how you see Dylan’s time line. It’s clear now that he was “leaving good stuff in the can” much earlier in his career than previously thought, that his working methods began to change (I’m assuming there’s no secret backlog of traditional songs on the “Highway 61” session tapes) when he was still a relatively young man. Which makes me wonder: is it possible that we’ll find a similar trove of great material from Dylan’s worst period, the “Knocked Out Loaded” and “Down In The Groove” 80s? I would think not – those albums pretty much define threadbare. But I also remember an account of a session for one of the albums written by, I think, Mikal Gilmore, that alluded to early rock n’ roll (think “Together Through Life”) style material being recorded but not released. It would be hilarious and strange to discover an 80s Dylan who was not at the end of his rope, who somewhere on deep background just kept on keeping on.