Review Summary: Whether or not you're a fan of Dylan's 'country' period, this album is essential if you have even a passing interest in English and/or American folk music.
Sometimes it’s hard not to lose faith in Columbia Records. Sure, Columbia/CBS has been the label for many of the greatest musicians in history: the Clash, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis. But then it goes and makes dumb mistakes on prominent front-covers. The subtitle of the new Dylan release is ‘Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)’, despite there being music on there from 1967. Still, never mind. I guess we should be grateful.
Anyone with even a fleeting interest in old anglophone folk music needs to hear this album. It’s fresh, fertile, and fantastically (if occasionally gratingly) sung, and provides a crucial new perspective on some of Dylan’s most maligned years: 1969-1971, a period that saw him settle down in cosy domesticity and croon at people, often accompanied by luminaries such as Johnny Cash and George Harrison. There are a couple of songs on this 35-song double-disc set that feature the former Beatle, both of which are great fun: ‘Working on a Guru’, which makes about as much sense as its title suggests, and a version of ‘Time Passes Slowly’ that betters the version released on 1970’s underrated New Morning.
Folk music, in its truest sense, is not constituted simply by an artist sitting on a stool and plucking away at an acoustic guitar. There are histories, narratives, characters and traditions to incorporate, and strident protestations or pointed social commentary are not prerequisites. (Ironically, Dylan played a key role in synonymising folk and protest.) This two-hour set contains no protest songs. All the tracks are simple, though often profound; nearly half are covers, and most of the songs deal with characters colourful (‘This Evening So Soon’); elusive (‘Pretty Saro’, ‘Went to See the Gyspy’); impoverished (‘Minstrel Boy’, ‘Only A Hobo’); and/or hallucinatory (‘Tattle O’Day’). We meet whiskey-brewers and drunkards, murderers and victims, lovers and the beloved. And we’re fortunate to encounter, in a stroke of centuries-old, non-Dylan-patented surrealism, a bellowing bull who stands four inches high. Presumably not as high as the ditty’s author, then.
Some of the most interesting material springs from Dylan’s interpretations of British folk traditionals; he’s perfect for them. If you’d rather not shell out £13 (an investment I’d recommend), download ‘This Evening So Soon’, ‘Pretty Saro’, ‘Went to See the Gypsy [Demo]’, ‘Copper Kettle’, and ‘Belle Isle’. Those five are essential: Beautiful with a capital ‘b’.