Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)

Release Date: August 27, 2013
Another Self-Portrait covers an often neglected era in Dylan's recording career. Between 1969-1971, Dylan released three albums that meant with mostly tepid responses. Nashville Skyline seemed the antithesis of Blonde on Blonde, a 30 minute record featuring Dylan singing in a croon, biding farewell to the amphetamine driven vocals of the mid-60s. Self-Portrait was the first Dylan release of 1970s, a double album of mostly covers, some engaging, others less so. Critics took the bait and declared Dylan finished, but the album aged well, prescient in its lo-fi style that dominated 90s indie rock. New Morning appeared in late 1970, a more focused album of all original material.  

Another Self Portrait is one of my favorites of the bootleg series. The original recordings included on the release sound fresh and vibrant, worthy improvements on the original versions of these songs, many of which were never released. Excerpts from the Isle of Wight concert and demos made with George Harrison are also highlights. The sound on these records weaves between the more "homespun" sound of the early Paul McCartney albums and the ambitious production Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Over Water

These are some of the highlights.

Disc 1

"Pretty Saro" An English traditional that features a a haunting vocal from Dylan.

"Spanish is the Loving Tongue" Set to piano, one of the best renditions of another tradtional, much better than the version on the 1973 "revenge" album released by Columbia (outtakes from Self-Portrait released in response to Dylan's brief time at Asylum records).

"Time Passes Slowly #1" One of the great songs on New Morning, here it sounds like a lost track from the Beatles White Album (George Harrison provided backing vocals).

"Only a Hobo" A song Dylan recorded many times in the very early days, this performance was intended for inclusion on Greatest Hits Vol. II.

"Thirsty Boots" Another pristine recording, a cover of Eric Anderson's 1966 song inspired by the Civil Rights Movement.

"This Evening So Soon" Another outtake from Self-Portrait, focused and well produced.

Disc 2

"If Not For You" Dylan's collaboration with Harrison includes a stately string arrangement. The song appeared on Dylan's New Morning and George's All Things Must Pass.

"Wallflower" A song Dylan passed on to Texan Doug Sahm, Diana Krall's version is also excellent.

"Sign on the Window" A magisterial version of a pivotal track on New Morning, possibly the best indicator of Dylan's state of mind in the early 1970s.

"Tattle O'day" A joyful tune Dylan about a dog with Harrison on guitar. 

"New Morning" The album's title track gets completely re-imagined as a four minute epic with horns reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel's "Keep the Customer Satisfied."

"Went to see the Gypsy" On an electrical piano, Dylan does a lounge act performance of a song about a mythical meeting in Las Vegas. I discussed this one on the podcast Pod Dylan.

"Time Passes Slowly #2" Another exceptional take with Al Kooper on organ.


Another Self Portrait does a great job of shedding light on an often misunderstood period in Dylan's career, the myth being he didn't care about the quality of the albums he was putting out. In many ways these records are a continuation of the Basement Tapes, a blend of traditional songs with new songs, often blurring the line between the two. The production on Another Self-Portrait are far more adventurous than what appeared on the official releases.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Tempest: Shine Your Light

Release Date: September 10, 2012
"We are such stuff that dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep." 

- William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act IV, Scene I

As of this posting, Tempest is the latest album of original songs released by Bob Dylan. Released in the fall of 2012, the collection of ten songs returns to themes familiar to Dylan's late period: time passing, mortality, romance, violence, and the ghosts of history. Does Tempest feel like a final album? One could say that about every Dylan album since Time Out of Mind in 1997, for a time considered Dylan's "death album." For all we know Dylan could release some new songs tomorrow, nevertheless one cannot deny sense of finality floating through Tempest from the title (considered Shakespeare's final play) to the achingly reflective opening track "Duquesne Whistle" to the elegiac tribute written for a contemporary "Roll On John."

Tempest begins with what sounds like calliopes that conjures sights from a distant past, a literary method Ray Bradbury used to great effect in the haunted nostalgia of his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Then "Duquesne Whistle" kicks in for real and we're back in Dylan's America of endless railroads and roving gamblers. The sound of the train "blowing at his Chamber Door" like Poe's raven conjures the past, moments that may have happened yet exist only in dream, "you smiling through the fence at me, just like you always smiled before."

"Soon After Midnight" has easy going doo-wop and late night ambiance, except that part about dragging two-timing Slim's corpse through the mud. "Narrow Way" could be outtake from either Love & Theft or Modern Times with its steady blues rhythm and vortex of emotion, "if can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday." "Long and Wasted Years" tells the story of a failed marriage, one that's lost all meaning except for what it used to be. "Pay in Blood" was rated the best rock song of the year by Rolling Stone. Uncompromising in its old world values, Dylan sings "I pay in blood, but not my own." Here Dylan's the unrepentant judge/prophet/outlaw archetype, he's been through hell, "but what good did it do?"

With "Scarlet Town" starting off the second half of the record, the tone of Tempest begins to shift with Dylan leaning towards an omniscient perspective. Now Dylan's the storyteller, the songs are full of references to ancient poetry. Thematically, the songs take on greater weight.

"Scarlet Town" has inspired the most analysis of all the tracks on Tempest, a song that must be important to Dylan since he's played it live over 300 times. "Desolation Row" comes up as an immediate comparison, as the places Dylan describes are in stasis. Musically, the mournful strings recall "Ain't Talkin'." Life goes on, but moves slowly and sadly: 

In Scarlet Town you fight your father's foes
Up on the hill a chilly wind blows
You fight em' on high and you fight em down in
You fight em with whisky, morphine, and gin

The town's full of the good, the bad, and the ugly wading through the quagmire of an eternal conflict going on since before recorded memory. Lyrically "Scarlet Town" is rich with metaphor and open to many interpretations. For myself, the song conjures the Graham Greene novel The Power and the Glory, dealing with spiritual dearth in a fallen paradise. "Scarlet Town" could be a purgatory, "I'm staying up late and I'm making amends/while the smile of heaven descends." It may not the be the type of place to visit , you don't have to, you're already there. 

"Early Roman Kings" lifts a Muddy Waters riff from "Mannish Boy" in a song about Bronze Age gangsters. "Tin Angel" returns to Dylan's fascination with complex love triangles prevalent in songs like "Visions of Johanna" and "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts." "Tin Angel" is a lengthy 9 minute song of a shadowy triangle that ends in bloody violence. I like the hypnotic melody, but the narrative gets convoluted.

For those who survived the Jacobean theatrics "Tin Angel," the last two songs are surprisingly sentimental. "Tempest" retells the sinking of the Titanic, a historical tragedy Dylan referenced on "Desolation Row," imagining Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain's tower. "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" gave a comical account of a shipwreck. Dylan positions the Titanic's sinking as the precursor to 20th Century chaos:

It was the fourteenth day of April
Over the Waves she road
Sailing into tomorrow
To a Golden Age Foretold

A cinematic account follows with characters appearing, mostly archetypes from previous Dylan songs and one that came before him. The definitive film about the Titanic, A Night to Remember, came out in 1958 when Dylan was in High School, the 1997 James Cameron film Titanic is also referenced.

"Roll on John" eulogizes the life of John Lennon, a key figure in Dylan's life and the 20th century. Many have speculated on the influence Dylan and Lennon had on each other. If Dylan had a musical soulmate in the Beatles it would be George Harrison since they recorded and wrote songs together many times, most notably in The Traveling Wilburys. 

Dylan and Lennon spent time together occasionally in the 1970s and would sometimes attend each other's concerts. In 1980 Lennon recorded a demo titled "Serve Yourself" when he parodied Dylan's Christian song "Gotta Serve Somebody." Lennon's murder in 1980 shook up the rock community and I'm sure Dylan felt the loss. Despite the slights Dylan always spoke kindly of Lennon. Despite their differences in style and temperament, Dylan, the survivor, pays homage to a friend and friendly rival. A connection bound by fate.

Thus ends Tempest, a weighty record with a bit of everything. Tempest may not have the sonic punch of Love & Theft nor the rollicking sweep of Modern Times, it's the words that are placed front and center. The songs are less grounded in Americana, concerned more with the convergence of mythology, history, and literature.