Sunday, August 25, 2013

Another Look at 'Another Self-Portrait'

The usually sensible Scott Lemieux over at Lawyers, Guns and Money took on a heroic task for himself today: reviewing an album he’s neverheard. Actually, it's more than that: Lemieux is attacking a review of an album he’s never heard, and giving the reasons for why that review – of an album he’s never heard, remember – is not just wrong-headed, but downright corrupt.

The album in question is Dylan’s Another Self Portrait, and the review is David Fricke’s rave in Rolling Stone, which calls the record "one of the most important, coherent and fulfilling Bob Dylan albums ever released.” Lemieux thinks that record must perforce be terrible, because Self-Portrait was terrible (hilariously invoking Greil Marcus' contemporaneous outraged pan, as if a review then must be more correct than a review now), and this is mostly a compilation of outtakes from the Self-Portrait era, although it also includes the New Morning era.

Hey, I like Self-Portrait. The cover of “Let It Be Me” features some of Dylan’s tenderest singing (backed by astonishingly good Nashville pros), and the live version of “The Mighty Quinn,” recorded with the Band at the Isle of Wight, is, to my mind, one of the greatest things Dylan ever did. Other people like “Copper Kettle” or the cover of “The Boxer” (which Lemieux himself admits to liking).

Everyone seems to agree that there’s good stuff on Self-Portrait, mixed among way to much chaff. Fricke himself, in this review, describes the original album as “tough going.” If Another Self-Portrait manages to find more of the quality stuff while ignoring the types of songs nobody likes, it’s possible it could be a good record. I don’t know - I haven’t heard it! After all, it’s not like Dylan hasn’t left great material off albums before; Lemieux cites “Blind Willie McTell,” but there’s also “Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” “Abandoned Love,” “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” etc. If he left stuff that good off albums he cared about, it’s highly plausible that he left good stuff off the haphazardly assembled Self-Portrait.

None of that is very interesting, though, and I wouldn’t bring it up if Lemieux hadn’t gone further and accused David Fricke of being dishonest in writing this review. I was fortunate enough to work with David for several years, and I along with everyone who worked alongside him saw him as the consummate professional. Musicians feel the same way; artists ranging from Thom Yorke to Warren Zevon (although I guess that’s just Y to Z) have agreed to sit for interviews with Rolling Stone only if David Fricke got the assignment. People don’t command that kind of respect if their opinions are for sale.

Ah, but Lemieux points out that a decade or so ago, Rolling Stone published an over-the-top five-star review of a Mick Jagger solo album, and that therefore this review must be similarly corrupt. Lemeixu has no way of knowing this, but that was a very different situation. Jagger wanted very much to be on the cover when his solo record came out, and Jann Wenner had enough sense to turn that down, but also ended up feeling guilty enough about it that he wanted to do something to compensate his longtime friend. (While Jann undoubtedly has tremendous respect for Dylan – who doesn’t? – they are not friends, not in the way he and Jagger are.)

And Wenner has no doubt paid the price for that. At this point, pretty much all anyone remembers about Mick Jagger’s solo career is that Rolling Stone published an embarrassing review of one of his albums. And also, there are people like Scott Lemieux who now think every review published in Rolling Stone is dishonest.

But you won’t find David Fricke’s name anywhere near that Jagger review, and it’s an insult to say that based on that episode, Fricke’s work must be suspect as well. Fricke may be right about Another Self-Portrait, and he may be wrong – I don’t know, because I haven’t heard the record! – but I am 100 percent certain that his opinion was come by honestly. He evinced similar enthusiasm for Tell Tale Signs, Dylan’s collection of outtakes from his late-career renaissance, excitedly writing about how you could trace the decisions Dylan was making in his singing as the takes progressed. I guess Lemieux would say that review was bought and sold as well.

On the other hand, Christmas in the Heart got only three stars in Rolling Stone, and Together Through Life four stars. I guess Jann felt it was better to butter up Dylan with inflated reviews of his outtakes rather than of his current material. The review that Lemeiux sees as so obviously corrupt awards Another Self-Portrait four and a half stars, while the reader consensus on the RS Web site awards it four stars; that extra half star must be the one that really matters to the Dylan camp.

Or maybe David Fricke just liked the record. Maybe it really is that good – I don’t know! I haven’t heard it! Since I haven’t, I’ll take the word of a highly respected rock critic who has listened carefully to the album over that of someone who hasn’t heard it (and can’t even be bothered to spell Fricke’s name correctly in his attack). Someone comes off looking pretty bad in this exchange, and it isn’t David Fricke.


  1. I'm actually a big fan of "Self Portrait" myself. I always appreciated the self-deprecating irony of an album titled as such that is made up of mostly covers. Very expressive of the many faces and moods of Dylan. You hit on most of my favorites on this album, and I do also dig the Blue Moon rendition. "Livin' the Blues" is great, and a Dylan original, a rarity on this album...sounds like a track that didn't quite make the cut for Nashville Skyline. Plus the live Band-aided "Minstrel Boy" -- fantastic.