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Exoteric and Esoteric Readings of Jann Wenner

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Dylan once explained why he made Self-Portrait a double album:

To me, it was a joke. It wouldn’t have held up as a single album — then it really would’ve been bad, you know. I mean, if you’re gonna put a lot of crap on it, you might as well load it up!

So this week he’s releasing a bunch of outtakes and demos from the Self-Portrait sessions (and, to be fair, from the sessions for Nashville Skyline and New Morning, two pretty good although certainly not top-tier records.) In a classic of its long-debased review section, Rolling Stone seems to be taking Dylan’s advice. Very meta!

This two-CD set of previously unissued demos, alternate takes, scrapped arrangements and discarded songs from more than 40 years ago is one of the most important, coherent and fulfilling Bob Dylan albums ever released.

Right — this collection of Self-Portrait outtakes, which seems overwhelmingly likely to be a below-median “Bootleg Series” album, is one of his very greatest records. Right up there in importance with Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. Let’s check back in a year on that one!

Some of the reviews of Wenner’s buddies (whether by him or his designated lackey) are so over-the-top I have to wonder if they’re an intentional signal to the readers to ignore them. I mean, give a Mick Jagger solo album 3 1/5 stars with text suggesting that it’s surprisingly non-terrible and some poor reader might take a flier. But give one five stars while praising Lenny Kravitz and Rob Thomas as among his greatest collaborators and you’re not going to convince anyone to buy the record, you’re just going to convince people to permanently ignore your reviews section. I wonder if Wenner trying to do his cronies a solid without fooling anyone into actually purchasing the recordings.

I actually wouldn’t mind hearing the new Dylan bootleg thing; even Self-Portrait, while certainly not among the first 25 Dylan albums you should hear or anything, has some odd fascinations. (The parody of “The Boxer” nearly justifies the record in itself, and I like a couple of the covers a lot, particularly “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.”) The highlights on NPR are nothing thrilling or revelatory like the amazing Blood on the Tracks demos or “Blind Willie McTell” on Volumes 1-3 but not without interest either. But try to tell me that it’s one of Dylan’s “most important, coherent and fulfilling” records and I’m tempted to forget the whole thing, as I suspect Fricke will have six months from now.

The comparison with Greil Marcus’s classic review of the original is obligatory.

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