This two-CD set of previously unissued demos, alternate takes, scrapped arrangements and discarded songs from more than 40 years ago is one of the most important, coherent and fulfilling Bob Dylan albums ever released. The performances are immediate and invigorating, often in spare, buoyant arrangements with clear, virile singing. Despite the vintage, or maybe because it’s all been hidden for so long, everything here feels like new music, busy being born and put to tape with crisp impatience. “Let’s just take this one,” Dylan says before a take of the traditional ballad “Little Sadie,” one of 17 raw, magnetic tracks from a single three-day sprint with guitarist David Bromberg and pianist Al Kooper in March 1970. Dylan was, in fact, on the verge of a crossroads: the widely scorned double LP Self Portrait, issued three months later. He sounds eager to get there.
That album is still tough going: a frank, confrontational likeness of the artist at 29 and loose ends, crooning folk tunes, pure corn and odd, plaintive originals, mostly through thick Nashville syrup. There may be no better description of Dylan at the close of his first, whirlwind decade, exhausted and uncertain of his way into the next, than Self Portrait‘s opening mantra, sung in his place by a group of country-gospel angels: “All the tired horses in the sun/How’m I supposed to get any ridin’ done?”
Self Portrait and the country-folk assurance of its late-’70 follow-up, New Morning, were actually part of a long, connected act of self-examination and re-ignition. Most of Another Self Portrait comes from those sessions, highlighting Dylan’s breadth of drive at a time when many thought he had no direction forward. The horns on this set’s “New Morning” are busy in the verses but a delightful Stax-like reveille in the chorus, while a pre-overdub version of Self Portrait‘s ghost story “Days of ’49” has more room for the haunting in Dylan’s voice. “I contemplated every move, or at least I tried,” he sings in a moving take of “Went to See the Gypsy,” effectively summing up this period in a line he then cut from the song on New Morning.
Dylan was no writing engine that year. The few previously unissued originals here are quirky pleasures (the shaggy-dog dada of “Tattle O’Day”). But the music is consistently alive and astonishingly modern. The honky-tonk walk “Alberta #3” could have been cut for last year’s Tempest. The exploration of different roads in the same song; the restorative power Dylan draws from traditional sources like “House Carpenter,” a song in this set that he first cut in 1962: Dylan still makes his best work that way. The difference here: He did it, then gave us something else.
A deluxe edition of this set has Dylan’s 1969 Isle of Wight concert with the Band, a romping affair (excerpted on Self Portrait) that, except for the mileage on Dylan’s voice now, doesn’t sound that distant from his shows of the past 20 years. There is also a remastered Self Portrait, an instructive bonus if you’ve never heard it. But you won’t go back to it that often. There will be no need.