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Culture Club: Lost and Found
  • August 22, 2013 : 15:08
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Beloved legendary performers inspire the sort of dedicated fan base that hungers for everything they’ve ever done—even if it’s terrible. Actually, that’s a perk of being an enduring artist: Hang around long enough and eventually even some of your crap seems ingenious. To a certain degree, the enthusiasm for every last scrap of an artist’s legacy is flattering, an indication that sympathetic fans crave a warts-and-all portrait of the performers they admire. But it becomes more problematic when corporate greed and the ravenous demands created by the internet start influencing what we hear. Doesn’t quality deserve some consideration, too?

At the end of August, Columbia Records will unveil Bob Dylan’s Another Self Portrait, a multidisc collection that revisits the sessions that led to 1970’s Self Portrait, the album generally considered Dylan’s worst. Dylan was on a hot streak before he released Self Portrait, a curious collection of poky country-flavored covers, instrumentals and original tunes that spanned two records and showed little of the inspiration that had marked previous masterworks such as Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. Critics hated it. Reviewing Self Portrait in Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus began his pan with what became perhaps the most famous opening line of a record review: “What is this shit?” An attempt by Dylan to strip away the mystique hanging heavy on his shoulders by putting out intentionally trivial music, Self Portrait succeeded all too well in its mission, convincing many of the faithful that his moment as a generational spokesman was over.

Forty-three years later, that shit is now being celebrated. Columbia not only acknowledges Self Portrait’s abysmal reputation but is using it as a selling point. The advertising for Another Self Portrait proudly cites Marcus’s review and goes on to claim that this new set, which features alternate versions and unreleased songs from the late 1960s and early 1970s, “bring[s] fresh perspective to one of the artist’s most controversial periods and reveal[s] it to be one of his most wonderfully creative and prolific.”

Another Self Portrait is the latest example of an unpopular, infamous misfire being embraced years after the fact. (You can also see this trend in the recent wave of critical reevaluations defending notorious movie bombs such as Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar.) In an era when we’re beset with endless lists honoring the all-time-best movies, albums, songs, TV shows and everything else, these sorts of reappraisals serve as a backlash: Stop shoving your canon down our throat and let us discover things on our own.

Such an environment suggests that every piece of work, no matter its merits, will find an audience that can appreciate it. (And in fact, Another Self Portrait itself is part of a larger Columbia series of official “bootleg” Dylan albums, the label’s wise strategy to capitalize on the dozens of studio recordings and live tracks that never got released but circulated among fans for years.) But the truth is that there are some projects so terrible even their creators don’t want them out in the world.

Too bad for them: Audiences are going to hear an artist’s most embarrassing failures—either through labels’ greed or fans’ insatiable curiosity.

Dylan has experienced both scenarios—but not through Self Portrait. For although Self Portrait is remembered as Dylan’s nadir, it’s actually an album that came out three years later that’s really his low point. I’m talking about Dylan, a nine-song set of covers recorded during the sessions for Self Portrait and its follow-up, New Morning. On Dylan, you can hear the man warble Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” mangling the lyrics in the process. You can check out his “Lay Lady Lay”-like treatment of “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” They’re not wretched performances so much as exhausted ones—the sound of a guy kicking back and screwing around, safe in the knowledge that if he wasn’t pleased with the takes they would never see the light of day.

Except they did. Dylan was put out by Columbia, the same label now proudly hawking Another Self Portrait, after Dylan left to sign with Asylum. Undeterred by Dylan’s exit, Columbia decided to release a set of leftovers from his time with the company, figuring it’d squeeze every last penny out of its association with the songwriter. Dylan is one of pop music’s most obnoxious examples of corporate cynicism, preying on fans’ unquenchable thirst for their songwriting hero’s tunes.

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