Graded on a Curve:
Bob Dylan,
Dylan

Of all the rotten, no account, double-dealing low down, plug ugly, nasty tricks ever to be perpetrated on unsuspecting record buyers, this blatant profit grab takes the cake. The story behind Bob Dylan’s absolute worst album is well known–in revenge for his jumping ship and signing with Geffen Records, Columbia Records released this feckless collection of outtakes in an attempt to squeeze the Dylan teat one last time.

1973’s Dylan is an abomination; anybody who thought Bobby D. couldn’t sink any lower than 1970’s Self Portrait was sadly mistaken. This collection of misbegotten covers stinks to high heaven, and while it’s hard to blame Dylan (he didn’t agree to their being released), I’m inclined to point the finger in his direction anyway. The man should have had the foresight to burn the tapes, or to bury them mob style somewhere in the desert outside Las Vegas where they would never be found.

If the artistic value of Dylan is null and void, it does raise an interesting question about Dylan the artist circa 1969-70. It all comes down to chronology. Most people think Dylan is made up of outtakes from Self Portrait, an album Dylan himself has said he released in a calculated attempt to disenchant fans who insisted upon viewing him as a prophet and a seer.

Bob, to an interviewer circa 1981: “And at that time I was getting the wrong kind of attention, for doing things I’d never done. So we released [Self Portrait] to get people off my back. They would not like me any more. That’s… the reason that album was put out, so people would just at that time stop buying my records, and they did.”

It was a canny strategy indeed; what better way to disabuse his legions of rabid followers than by releasing a bunch of howlingly bad covers along the lines of “The Boxer,” on which Bob sings both Simon and Garfunkel’s parts in a surreal duet with himself?

But here’s where things get curiouser and curiouser. In point of fact, seven of the nine cuts on Dylan weren’t recorded during the April 1969 Self Portrait sessions, but at the June 1970 sessions for New Morning. If Dylan did indeed release Self Portrait as a deliberate audience repellent, he certainly must have considered mission accomplished after the scathing reviews the album received from both critics and all but his most blinded-by-hero-worship fans. So why was he still experimenting with the things (saccharine female backing vocals, maudlin arrangements, etc.) that made Self Portrait such a risible piece of garbage more than a year later? Having successfully alienated his public by perversely confounded their expectations, what possible reason could he have had for recording more of the same?

Dylan has all of the deplorable characteristics of Self Portrait and adds a new one; Dylan’s vocal performances are often over-the-top bad. Howlingly bad. Are you fucking kidding me bad. His cringe-worthy crooning on the hilariously dumb “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue” would have mortified Bing Crosby. His singing on “Can’t Help Falling in Love” is guaranteed to provoke howling in canines both large and small. And to hear him essay the nonsense syllables in “Sarah Jane” is an experience you will never forget, much as you might want to. As for his take on “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” well, it’s simply demented. The spoken parts are a hoot; the parts he sings are guaranteed to expel both poltergeists and small rodents from your home.

The arrangements blow as well. The organ, piano, and backing vocalists of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” are sweet essence of treacle. “Sarah Jane” proceeds at a headlong rush, and both Bob and his requisite squad of indentured female vocalists strive in vain to keep up. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” sounds like a slapdash first take, and probably was, but the ridiculous guitar solo, cheesy organ, and (once again) cliched female backing vocals betray a serious attempt to reach a new audience, namely the Florida snowbird crowd.

In the end, Dylan casts doubts on the artist’s own rationale for releasing Self Portrait. Having succeeded in his goal of putting out an album that, in his own words, his fans couldn’t “possibly like” or “relate to,” why was he still recording music in the same vein more than a year later? My suspicion is he actually believed in this new and awful musical direction, and continued to entertain vain hopes that sooner or later his fans would catch on and catch up, just as they had when he’d transitioned from folk to rock. Self Portrait? Self Deluded is more like it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
F

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