And so, here we are, the end of the road that is Self Portrait, and we manage to end with a song that's both a fitting closer and one heck of an anti-climax. Perhaps those aren't even contradicting terms. It seems to make sense that this album would end with "Alberta #2", essentially a cover of another song on the same damn album, and a song as good as any to put this sucker to bed. As far as the song goes, it's probably the better "Alberta" - the song's structure is more suitable to an up-tempo arrangement, and Bob at least puts on a pretty good effort here. Of course, nearly any song would serve as something as an anti-climax for an ending to this album (with the possible exception of "Wigwam", which instead serves at the penultimate track as a final bit of perversion from our man Bob), so perhaps it's not worth worrying too hard about. At any rate, in true nature with the rest of the album, it's a pleasant few minutes that shows up, does its bit, and then abruptly comes to a close. And, anti-climax that this song is aside, there might not be a more fitting real ending than that tape screeching to a halt, like somebody stopped the reel too soon and nobody bothered to correct it. I kind of like that.
The final topic the RS review mentions, one so apparently important that it gets two whole sections, is the notion of Self Portrait serving as Dylan's version of the auteur theory, one which was catching hold as the 1960s progressed and the French New Wave had helped redefine what film could aspire to be. Seeing as how this collection of motley tunes has been named in a way that you can't help but immediately fix onto the man himself, one could easily infer that this album is in fact ABOUT the man himself, capturing the mannerisms, quirks, and all the little things that make Bob Dylan Bob Dylan. And, for those that subscribe to the auteur theory as something good and worthwhile, and want their art to bear the unmistakeable stamp of its creator and even act as part of the overall arc of said artist developing in his craft, this is a really, really good thing. Marcus, rather obviously, disagrees - he finds the idea of somebody wilding out over Dylan covering a bunch of other people's songs vapid, and it's hard to disagree.
Marcus also brings up the idea that approaching your craft as an auteur would is limiting in an artistic sense - that by imposing yourself upon everything you create, you and your works become more insular, self-contained, and this method of making art ultimately will collapse on itself. I'd like to point out that Emily Dickinson seemed to do just fine in that regard, but that's surely an exception, so we'll take Marcus at his word. And this is the sort of thing that can work both ways - both negatively, as Marcus would have it, but more positively than he'd give it credit for. Marcus is correct in saying that this insular way of dealing with the world can limit ambition, perhaps even stifle it entirely, and art tends to be better when it takes on the world and you don't have to play an endless guessing game as to which song has to do with which incident in the artist's life and what the artist was feeling at this particular time (which, of course, is practically unavoidable with Dylan, but we can agree that that's not the best way to listen to his music). Allowing his music to be overwhelmed with his own fame is the worst thing that could happen to Dylan, and an album like Self Portrait, constructed in a way that practically invites guessing games while not being strong enough to stand on its own merits, would get swallowed in a second. Not being a seer, of course, Marcus certainly had his reasons to worry.
And yet...I suppose I am already stepping on an entire series of future posts, but I cannot help but look five years into Bob's future, to find an album that would very clearly fall under the auteur theory that Marcus described, and yet is so powerful and brilliant that it dismisses any mere criticism like "oh, this is too much about Bob" with a wave of its hand. Now, obviously, it does not hurt to have a collection of astounding songs in your back pocket to help push aside those charges of navel-gazing, as Blood on the Tracks does. But what we're dealing with in that album is a song cycle that surely has everything to do with the artist that created it (despite his past claims to the contrary - I mean, come on, dude), that doesn't so much take on the world as shape the world into a stage for this little ten-act play Dylan has written, and has led to guessing games for well over 30 years (I don't think ANYBODY has still gotten a hold of what "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" is all about) - basically, then, Dylan's own version of Stolen Kisses. And it is an unqualified masterpiece. Surely, then, it's not just the pen, but how you wield it.
I don't think that Marcus was arguing, in the end, that an artist shouldn't be able to stamp ANY imprimatur unique only to them on their own work; after all, so much of what gives art its personality comes from he or she that created it. But what he was saying, and with regards to this album, is that when you stamp too much of yourself onto your work, you're running down a rabbit hole that only leads further and further down. And in those days, when nobody knew what Dylan was capable next, only that he'd released this disheartening collection of a few jewels buried under a mountain of slop, you could be forgiven if you saw Dylan chasing down his own personal rabbit hole, maybe never to be seen again. Thankfully, we know how that story ended. Bob came back from the depths of his own navel, recorded some of the greatest music we or our future generations will ever see, and proved every person writing his premature career obituary totally wrong. And, ultimately, that's what makes Self Portrait such a tough listening experience today - it brings us back to those dark times, when Dylan might have been lost to a lifetime of desultory covers and increasingly painful originals. We may know how the story ends, but that doesn't make me want to go through that story just to read the end all over again.
And that's it for Self Portrait! Whew. Coming up next - good music! No more using somebody else's words as a crutch! Thank you all so much for the reading and support; we're entering a new decade of Dylan's career, and a whole new spectrum of ideas to write about. I, for one, simply cannot wait.
Friday, September 4, 2009