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Perhaps the most misunderstood and maligned of Dylan’s early albums, and an inauspicious beginning to the decade of the 1970s (especially after the previous year’s acclaimed, country-flavored Nashville Skyline), Self Portrait isn’t quite the pail of lukewarm dishwater it’s often made out to be. Confusing, yes, even to the sort of prawn that spends their lives trying to suss out the Shakespeare of Rock’s every utterance. With Self Portrait, Dylan was literally providing us with a series of crudely-painted canvases, the singer often applying the broadest of strokes, but revealing glimpses of the face behind the mask with a mix of originals, outtakes, and cover songs that each displayed a facet of Dylan’s temperament at the time…sometimes joking, sometimes playful (like a cat toying with a mouse), never less than thought-provoking.
Released as a two-album set with Dylan’s original artwork gracing the cover, the two-dozen numbers on Self Portrait run the gamut from influential covers (Boudleaux Bryant’s “Take Me As I Am” and “Take A Message To Mary”); contemporary cover songs (Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”); vintage folk tunes (“Days of ‘49”); and old material, including outtakes from The Basement Tapes LP (“The Mighty Quinn,” “Like A Rolling Stone”). Taken altogether, critics at the time considered it a rambling mess unworthy of an artist of Dylan’s stature. I prefer to think of it as a psychic “cleaning out of the closet” that would lead to the undisputedly brilliant New Morning album. Still, Self Portrait has its adherents, as shown by Sony’s decision to release an expanded “deluxe” reissue version of the album in late 2013.