Okay, here we go: this is, according to popular opinion, the worst album Dylan ever recorded. It’s not even a proper album; rather, it’s a series of outtakes from Self Portrait, with which Dylan shares a particular vibe and aesthetic.
As the story goes, Dylan was leaving Columbia Records to join the newly-formed Asylum Records, run by David Geffen. He had a contractual obligation to put out another album with Columbia or something to that effect, so they scraped these songs from the bottom of the barrel and put it out, against Bob’s wishes. Not long after, Dylan actually came back to Columbia, and he’s been recording for them ever since.
But that’s hardly the point. The point is, are these nine songs as God awful as everyone claims? Is this, in fact, the worst album of Dylan’s long, varied career?
In a word, no. This is far from his best work, and probably not as good as the stuff on Self Portrait, but it ain’t his worst work by a long shot (hello, Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove). What this collection is, is whimsical. It’s goofy. It’s a pretty fair amount of fun, too, owing to the fact that Dylan seems more relaxed here than on pretty much any other album I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard all of ’em at this point. Yeah, it’s a bunch of covers and has all the weight and substance of marshmallow fluff, but how often do we get to hear Dylan just having fun playing music? Almost never.
So, the nitty gritty. Dylan sings this in that nasally, twangy Nashville Skyline crooner voice. If you don’t like that, you’re not going to get anything out of this record. Second, the song selection is all over the place, as befits an “odds and sods” sort of collection like this. You’ve got everything from contemporary pop to traditional standards, and Dylan approaches them all with the same laid back nonchalance. There’s a certain charm to hearing him sing “Lily of the West” or “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The arrangements are loose and open, and he’s got those female backing vocalists from Self Portrait all over the album, but it’s all pretty breezy. His take on “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” really isn’t all that worse than Johnny Cash’s, though it may lack some of the gravitas of the Man in Black’s rendition. Admittedly, Dylan’s take on “Mr. Bojangles” was something we could have all done without, but the guy straight up doesn’t seemed to have given a damn.
Ultimately, Dylan isn’t the travesty of music that it’s often made out to be. Sure, it’s not going to ever be anyone’s go-to Dylan album (as with most – if not all – of his output after John Wesley Harding and before Blood on the Tracks), but it’s hardly the worst of the bunch, even from that narrow window of late ’60s/early ’70s Dylan output (can we all agree New Morning wasn’t that great? And Planet Waves? Ugh). It’s slight and unassuming, slightly goofy and whimsical and just a little bit of fun, if you’re willing to laugh at the joke.