Over the course of the last several weeks, we’ve read a good deal of magical — and wishful — thinking about the release of Bob Dylan’s Another Self Portrait. If the rock critters who currently are claiming the two-album compilation of various outtakes, stripped-down tracks, and unreleased gems are to be believed, then the producers have turned water into wine, coal into diamonds, and gold has been alchemically created from base metals via a Philosopher’s Stone recently discovered in the archives of Columbia Records.
For here is the truth, at least as we see it. The three most interesting periods in Dylan’s long career are 1) the genius stretch from Bringing It All Back Home through the ’65 tour and Blonde On Blonde; 2) The Basement Tapes; and 3, that mature eruption of late-innings creativity best summarized by The Bootleg Series Volume 8: Tell Tale Signs, which includes songs from 1989’s Oh Mercy to 2006’s Modern Times. Of all the various periods in Dylan’s half-century of astonishing creativity, the batch of records ranging from John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline to New Morning — and including the acknowledged dreck that was most of Self Portrait — is, if not the least satisfying run of albums (you’d probably have to bracket the 1980s period preceding Oh Mercy for that), then let’s call it for what it is: a comparatively weak, uncertain detour in what is otherwise a straight shot from Greenwich Village to artistic Valhalla.
We were mystified, as a teenager, by Self Portrait, especially given how much amazing music was happening at that moment, from the Beatles and Stones to hippy caravans with their saddlebags stuffed with all the Mad Dogs, Englishmen, and nascent Zeppelins. So to come out now, with what admittedly are some fine, lost Dylan songs, and make a claim, as some have, that this tumultuous period in Dylan’s amazing output is on the same aesthetic level as his best is, let’s face it, hooey. Given the famous Greil Marcus opener in the Rolling Stone review of Self Portrait — “What is this shit?” — we could say the same now about a fair bit of the hyperbole over this set of songs.
Except, except, there is this: the great Mikal Gilmore’s marvelous cover story in the new Rolling Stone captures the historical moment in what reads to us like pitch perfect balance. He makes no claims for the songs in the new album other than that they provide perspective lost in what was the official output of the day. And by ratcheting down the hype, he enabled us calmly to listen to both CDs of the newly found stuff, and to find the gems sprinkled among them. This is absolutely worth your time and money, even if the whole period of Dylan’s output — as influential as it was, shaking rock music from its jittery psychedelia to the more solid, stripped down country and blues that, in the Stones’ case, would lead to Beggars Banquet, and which would inspire the Byrds to consort with Gram Parsons — was neither as interesting as what came before it, nor as exciting as what was to come.
And then there is this: if you pony up for the box set, it arrives with the entirety of the Isle of Wight concert recorded on this very day 44 years ago. Picture the scene: Dylan has skipped the Woodstock Festival in his backyard two weeks previously, flown to England with The Band, and he performs his first concert in four years before a crowd of 200,000, which includes various Beatles and Stones. And the set he performs, as we now know from hearing the whole thing, ranks as one of the greatest-ever Dylan live recordings. For all the reports that he was nervous and ragged during this concert, with the fullness of time he sounds relaxed and loose and confident. He sings in that glottal, Johnny Cash-inspired voice we recognize from “Lay Lady Lay” — in fact, the version of “Lay Lady Lay” is worth the wheel barrow of money you have to pay to get the box set, with this CD — and all in, there may never be as strong a live vocal performance by Dylan that you’ll ever be able to buy, and yes we have the Rolling Thunder Review material. This live set has none of the jittery, amphetamine punch of ’65 set with The Band, and is wholly more satisfying in sound than the Before The Flood set from ’74. This live album is pure genius, wholly satisfying, a revelation.