What is interesting about this latest bootleg release was the decision to focus on the material recorded around the release of Self Portrait, an album which has garnered its fair shear of critics, and at the time of its release left fans and reviewers confused, to say the least. The original album was made up mostly of covers of pop standards and traditional folk songs of varying quality and contained hardly any new original material from Dylan. The reaction to this was poor despite the album still selling in the millions, with many expecting yet another Dylan masterpiece after his return post his serious motorcycle accident saw him release two of his finest albums John Wesley Harding in 1968 and Nashville Skyline in 1969. The story behind this inconsistent and confusing release is that Dylan had had enough of being in the spotlight and wanted to escape in order to live a normal life. To achieve this he thought that by releasing a sub-standard album people would go off him and his celebrity would die down allowing him to raise his family in peace. In the end, this decision ultimately failed and the album still sold well despite receiving a lot of negative press. This album seemingly didn’t do Dylan any favors and simply had the effect of increasing the spotlight around him as people became more expectant for the real Dylan to stand up. So it seems in focussing on the period around Self Portrait on this latest compilation, Columbia Records who produces these official bootleg releases is partaking in an act of music revisionism, going back to an album and period which was initially panned (mostly by critics) and seeing if it was actually as bad as made out. In response, I can say that after having listened to this compilation, this period of Dylan’s career was not as bad as has been made out and in fact, I think that many of these new recordings and alternate takes have done justice to the music Dylan was making at the time.
Coming in at thirty-five tracks I don’t have enough room to focus on all the material on here, but I will mention some of my favorites from the two discs. “Pretty Saro” is a traditional English folk ballad from the 1700s which was recorded by Dylan for Self Portrait and has until now remained unreleased. It is done in a beautifully simplistic folk style and features one of Dylan’s best vocal performances, a definite highlight on this compilation. “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” is a song which was based on a poem from the early 1900s and was set to music in the 1920s. Here, Dylan’s recording is just him on piano delivering yet again another brilliant vocal performance, showing also that at times he had a mellower vulnerable side to his voice and could sing a love song just as well as a protest anthem. “Time Passes Slowly” is a Dylan original which was originally released on New Morning. This recording is an alternative take that features George Harrison on guitar and backing vocals (one of two tracks that Harrison appears on) and comes across as vastly superior to the original album version of this track. “This Evening So Soon” is another traditional folk song that Dylan makes his own and one where he is accompanied by Bromberg on guitar and Al Kooper on piano. Finally, “Bring Me a Little Water” is another unreleased recording this time from the New Morning sessions which sees Dylan mix it up a bit with something I like to call folk gospel. On this recording, Dylan plays piano and sings with a soulful edge to his voice, while being accompanied by some female backing singers in what is one of the best songs on this compilation. Why this recording was passed over for the original album I don’t know, but I sure am glad we get to hear it now forty-odd years later.