Probably the strangest song on Self Portrait, if only because it doesn't actually register as an actual song. That's kind of interesting to think about; we come in to a new song with certain preconceptions, based on any number of songs we've heard in the past. There's probably going to be a verse, chorus, and middle eight, a fixed chord structure, lyrics that tie into each other all throughout, and so on. However, with "In Search of Little Sadie" one of those basic tenets is violated. Not the lyrical part - Dylan basically takes an old Western ballad ("Little Sadie" or "Badman's Ballad", famously recast as Live at Folsom Prison highlight "Cocaine Blues") and casts it as his own, retaining the clear story and basic progression of that type of song. What I'm referring to, of course, is the chord structure, or the lack thereof. Whether by experiment, goofing around, or some weird impulse, Dylan switches up the chords all throughout the song, creating a very strange and not particularly aesthetically pleasing effect.
Plain and simple, the song is ugly - an ugly experience to listen to, as Dylan more or less tosses aside any notions of what you'd want to hear musically in a song, as though he arrived at the studio with lyrics and wanted to do a little soft-shoe improv for the folks back home. Unfortunately, that doesn't really work when you're committing a song to tape that will be pressed onto vinyl for public consumption. And it'd be one thing if Dylan did this all throughout the album - then we could suggest that Dylan was, I dunno, inverting our common views of what songs are meant to be, changing around the very notion of music as a flowing listening experience, and experimenting with what we as human beings expect from music, popular and otherwise. Alas, I would think it more likely that Dylan was just messing around in studio, looking for a working chord change and playing around with the song's tempo, and just decided to stick the whole thing on the album. It's the equivalent of releasing a rehearsal, and nobody really wants that.
"In Search of Little Sadie", in a weird way, is emblematic of the album as a whole. When you look at the entire thing, it stinks. If you take a closer look, there are some elements that stand out - Dylan's singing is pretty good when he's not trying to keep up with the constant key changes, for instance. And all throughout is the feeling that maybe if Dylan had put in a little more effort, hadn't entered the studio with either no plan or a bad one, and had really put his soul into the take (unfortunately, the alternate version of "Little Sadie" suffers from that same lack of soul), something really good or at least really palatable might have come from the whole enterprise. Instead, we get something slapdash, rough to listen to, and ultimately kind of listless. It's a bummer, really.
So this section of the review has one of the most interesting moments - the "parable" of "the four questions", which I won't reprint here but can be read in the review link above. I made a reference in the very first post about how exceptionally pretentious this review is, and you need no further proof than this moment right here. What's funny is that the little "parable" in question is something that has a lot more weight the first time you read it than in subsequent readings. Yes, a lot of the lure of the paintings that hang in famous galleries (at least, for tourists, which the family in this parable clearly are) is the name that's signed on the canvas, perhaps even more so than what else is on there (incidentally, the third son that coyly said "it's a frame" deserves a smack upside the head - thinks he's so smart, the little wiseass). And that parable certainly would apply to Dylan in this case - for all the sins on this album, and they are many, they are much more easily forgiven because of the man committing them. If some random unknown artist had released this album, it wouldn't be nearly worthy of this attention. But it was Bob Dylan that put it out, and that alone at least begs for a listen.
What makes Marcus' clever bit of business fall apart is that he never gets into what that family thinks AFTER they've seen the artwork they traveled so far to see. We can be told how great Toulouse-Lautrec is until our ears hurt, after all, but it means nothing until we get to take a look at one of his paintings for ourselves. It's the same thing with Bob Dylan, actually, and it's kind of funny that Marcus misses the point later on when he talks about how Dylan's just a name to some random kid (I'll get to that in the next post). In the end, you may come to something because of its name and reputation (which makes sense - nobody just randomly stumbles onto Ozu or Picasso, they have to be told about them), but what makes you stay with that something is its quality. That nameless family may have traveled all that way because it's a famous artist what they saw on the teevee and whatnot, but if they actually enjoyed the painting for its merits, that's all that matters. And, ultimately, when it comes to Self Portrait it feels to me like the people that enjoy this album like it IN SPITE of it being a Dylan album, that they can be relaxed by the music without dealing with the attendant baggage of The Great Genius of Our Time and what have you, something you can't always say for his truly beloved and classic albums. That's something special, in its own way.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009