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The Second Self Portrait on the Trail of Tears
By Kevin Harvey
You know, listening to the reconstructed second version of Self Portrait, you can almost feel sorry for Bob Dylan. I can think of no other popular artist, save perhaps Elvis, who was so victimized by context and expectations. The superb Street Legal was savaged while the tossed off tracks Wilbury tracks were applauded; the wretched Christmas album has its defenders, yet all agree that Down in the Grove is a dud. It isn't. Any more than the original release of SP was the turd in the punch bowl that Greil Marcus called it. Not only was most of it interesting, parts of it were truly lovely. But then Marcus, trapped by context and weighted down with expectations, had a job to do. And, hip to the end, he did it. But that was a very long time ago, and Marcus' job today is one of finding the nuggets missed by everyone but the smartest kid in the critical room. As I say, reading the essays in the deluxe edition of the new SP is enough to make a person feel sorry for Bob Dylan. Now, finally, after all these years of abuse, the record can be heard for it was: a well sung collection of curious tunes picked by Bob because he liked them. And there you have it. Imagine what Marcus would have written if the original SP had included Tattle O'Day? Poor Greil would have gone screaming into the streets. But now, in 2013, we have a different Self Portrait to ponder, and it's a beautiful thing. From the hair-raising beauty of Pretty Saro to the monumental Sign on the Window, we have this great gift of a collection, quite possibly the best volume in the Bootleg Series....and, this time, everyone loves it! Even Greil. But it strikes me that one thing remains to be said: One of the reasons, maybe the reason, SP sounds so great is simply that Bob's voice sounds so good, so full of life. Collectively, we have followed his voice back to its root, where it is a cracked and gnarly thing. His voice is broken, ruined, and no one will tell him to stop. I want him to stop, the same way I wanted Ali to stop after the third fight with Joe. Ali couldn't any more than Bob can. But Bob has the Bootleg series to change the scorecards. Ali didn't. I hope Bootleg 11 shocks the world.