The line on Bob Dylan is that he never released his best material. Whether or not that’s entirely true, the best evidence is surely the period from 1967 to 1974 — from the motorcycle accident that ended Dylan’s second, electric incarnation, to the comeback hit “Blood on the Tracks.” During this period, Dylan and The Band helped reinvent American music, fusing country, folk and rock — and locked up their best work in a basement in Woodstock, N.Y.
Meanwhile, Dylan’s output from the period includes one of his most reviled albums, “Self-Portrait,” which he once described as “throwing a lot of stuff at the wall, and keeping what stuck, and keeping what didn’t stick, too.” “Self-Portrait” is indeed awful. An incomprehensible collection of terrible originals and even more terrible covers, half-sung in Dylan’s weird “Nashville Skyline” crooner voice, it prompted rock critic Greil Marcus to ask, plainly, “What is this s–t?”
So when I heard that the good people at Columbia Records were issuing “Another Self Portrait,” a collection of outtakes and demos from the period, I thought, “They’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel now.” What’s next? Dylan’s old voice mail greetings?
Listening to the new release, though, is a revelation. It’s the lost document, the Rosetta Stone, that makes sense of what Dylan was after, and failing to accomplish, not just in “Self-Portrait” but also in its much better sequel, the rootsy “New Morning” — and even in the past two decades of the man’s career, during which he’s reinvented himself yet again, this time as a champion of American roots music, a traveling journeyman/charlatan and a purveyor of the kind of timeless, immortal music that he helped displace half a century ago.
Forget Dylan the protest singer and Dylan the sublime lyricist. On “Another Self Portrait,” as in his recent work (from the 1998 “Love and Theft” up to last year’s “Tempest”), the lyrics often seem secondhand. Many are plagiarized from classic folk songs; many others just sound like they were. They traffic in stock images — the jail man; the preacher; the pretty, innocent girl. And this is the point. Dylan is searching for authenticity here; as he said in his recent, ranting Rolling Stone interview, “tradition — that’s what I’m about.”
Despite Dylan’s Jewish roots, or perhaps because of them, the tradition in question is not Yiddishkeit but Americana. Like Woody Guthrie before him (not Jewish, but married to a Jew and the father of Jewish children), Dylan’s embrace of American roots is that of an outsider relating to a tradition, not of a native son, and thus it carries a degree of reflexivity; Dylan is at once appreciator and enactor of these traditions. He’s both artist and fan.
The timing of this investigation, which begins with the 1967 release “John Wesley Harding,” is not coincidental. Remember the context. Dylan had gone to beatnik superstar from bohemian poet, to cynical imagist poet from earnest folksinger — in the space of about a year. Everything was moving fast: the records, the flights around the world and the motorcycle on which he almost died on July 29, 1966.