Bob Dylan: Blood On The Tracks

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_on_the_Tracks

Recorded: September 16-19, December 27-30 1974

Released: January 20, 1975

As I have been listening to Dylan’s albums in order, I sometimes cheat by skipping ahead and often crosscheck my impressions by going back and re-listening to previous ones. I’ve also just gone down the rabbithole of listening to the really nice Bob Dylan: Album by Album podcast. Here’s something I’ve learned: among Dylan’s greatest albums, which ones you prefer says more about you than it does about differences in the quality of the albums.

The consensus on the greatest Dylan albums is clear: Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and Blood On The Tracks. (Here’s a blog post that proves it scientifically!) Me, I’ve always considered Blood On The Tracks his greatest.  Going through this exercise has both shaken my confidence in that judgement a bit, but more importantly, has helped me understand why I feel that way.

Blood On The Tracks does not have the spectacular, astounding peaks of Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. As great as the songs here are, they are outshone by “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Desolation Row”, “Visions of Johanna”, and “Just Like A Woman” (not to mention “Mr. Tambourine Man” from Bringing It All Back Home or “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan). 

So why the love for Blood On The Tracks? I think it’s something that sounds trivial and even unartistic: the songs are straightforward and form a coherent whole. I have been listening to the Bob Dylan: Album by Album podcast take on Dylan’s older albums to avoid biasing my own (re-)impression of each album as I listen to it. Ben Burrrel (spent) well over an hour on both Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited, and these episodes were fascinating. For Blonde, he spends a lot of time on the sound (that “thin wild mercury music”) and for both, he spends a lot of time on the lyrics, pointing out interesting rhyme schemes, comparing them to surrealistic painting, and coming up with pretty ingenious interpretations. This was great stuff that much enhanced my appreciation of these albums (which I’ve probably listened to dozens, if not hundreds of times)!

But the thing about Blood On The Tracks is that you don’t need this level of analysis and interpretation to get it. The music is direct and appealing, and the lyrics are transparent, yet often powerfully poetic. I found an article about Dylan that had the most perfect capsule summary of the album:

With 15 years of fame behind him and the failure of a decade-long marriage in front of him, it is true that Dylan on this album looks at the world through blood-spattered glasses. The losses he is singing about seem fatal; his anger on songs like “Idiot Wind” is Lear-like. “Blood on the Tracks” is his only flawless album and his best produced; the songs, each of them, are constructed in disciplined fashion, written and rewritten, formed in a way his songs almost never are. It is his kindest album and most dismayed, and seems in hindsight to have achieved a sublime balance between the logorrhea-plagued excesses of his mid-’60s output and the self-consciously simple compositions of his post-accident years. 

“Discipline” is a key — a term that certainly doesn’t apply to Dylan’s mid-60s excursions. And yes, the “balance” between those brilliant excesses and the overly simple (simplistic) Nashville Skyline to Planet Waves period. 

The album begins with Dylan’s greatest story song, “Tangled Up in Blue”. Jangly folk-rock drives us forward, and the singing (as on the whole album) is just fantastic. Listen to “She turned around to look at me / As I was walking away” or “I seen a lot of women / But she never escaped my mind”. And then there’s the thrilling passage: 

Then she opened up a book of poems

And handed it to me

Written by an Italian poet

From the thirteenth century

And every one of them words rang true

And glowed like burning coal

Pouring off of every page

Like it was written in my soul from me to you

Every one of the words in this song — this album — glow like burning coal… And finally: “

But me, I’m still on the road

Heading for another joint

We always did feel the same

We just saw it from a different point of view

Tangled up in blue

Am I going to go through all the songs like this? Well, like Captain America said: “I can do this all day”… “Simple Twist of Fate” features incredible vocals, “You’re A Big Girl Now” starts sad, but resigned, before ending “With a pain that stops and starts, Like a corkscrew to my heart”, “Meet Me In The Morning” is a raw blues (the cleaned up version of the crazed “Call Letter Blues”, which is stark, more raw, and better, but too stark, raw, and personal), and the warmly appealing folk blues of “Buckets of Rain” is the perfect summing up of the album:

Life is sad, life is a bust

All you can do is do what you must

You do what you must do and you do it well,

I’d do it for you, honey baby,

Can’t you tell?

But before we get to that conclusion, we get another handful of amazing songs. “Idiot Wind” swings wildly  at everything in sight: There’s the press (which the narrator responds to with the funniest justification in Dylan’s work)

Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press

Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out but when they will I can only guess

They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy

She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me

I can’t help it if I’m lucky.

There’s the ex:

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth

You’re an idiot, babe

It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

But finally, the narrator might be facing up to his own role:

You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above

And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love

And it makes me feel so sorry

Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats

Blowing through the letters that we wrote

Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves

We’re idiots, babe

It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves

“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” features the happiest music on the album, and there’s lots of happiness in the lyrics, too, but they also look forward to the inevitable conclusion:

Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy

Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme

Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy

I could stay with you forever and never realize the time

Situations have ended sad

Relationships have all been bad

Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud

But there’s no way I can compare

All those scenes to this affair

Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go

(While going through this exercise, I also learned something new: this song is obviously about a woman Dylan was having an affair with… I guess I wouldn’t have minded not knowing that.)

“Lily, Rosemary, and The Jack of Hearts”. This is a seemingly straightforward old-west narrative about … what really? A heist? Love affairs? The Law? A murder… yes, a murder. 

No one knew the circumstance but they say that it happened pretty quick

The door to the dressing room burst open and a cold revolver clicked

And Big Jim was standin’ there, ya couldn’t say surprised

Rosemary right beside him, steady in her eyes

She was with Big Jim but she was leanin’ to the Jack of Hearts

The next day was hangin’ day, the sky was overcast and black

Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back

And Rosemary on the gallows, she didn’t even blink

The hangin’ judge was sober, he hadn’t had a drink

The only person on the scene missin’ was the Jack of Hearts

This is a song I’ve always liked, but while I’ve been listening to the album now, I just can’t get enough of it. It’s almost nine minutes long, but when it’s done, I just want to listen to it again.

“If You See Her, Say Hello” is another masterpiece. Amazing vocals, and lyrics that gradually tell us not just what the narrator wants “her” to hear, but what he really feels:

Say for me that I’m all right

Though things get kind of slow

She might think that I’ve forgotten her

Don’t tell her it isn’t so

I see a lot of people

As I make the rounds

And I hear her name here and there

As I go from town to town

And I’ve never gotten used to it

I’ve just learned to turn it off

Either I’m too sensitive

Or else I’m gettin’ soft

If she’s passin’ back this way

I’m not that hard to find

Tell her she can look me up

If she’s got the time

“Shelter From The Storm” Dylan needed it, he knew he needed it, and he knew he’d lost it… but still needed it. (Dylan’s “this album isn’t autobiographical” shtick is fine, but c’mon, even if every lyric isn’t describing an event in his life, it’s clearly about his experience and where he was at at the time.)  I love pretty much everything about this song, and pretty much every version he’s ever done of it (including the very different live versions coming up over the next few years). This includes the biblical imagery:

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes

I bargained for salvation an’ they gave me a lethal dose

I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn

“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

And there’s “Up To Me”, which Dylan left off the album. It’s great, it’s a masterpiece, some people have called it among Dylan’s best. Speculation is Dylan left it off the album because musically it was too similar to “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Shelter From The Storm”. At this point in the history of the world, this doesn’t matter — it’s available, so you can always include this in your own personal version of the album. 

Let’s let “Up To Me” have the last words:

And if we never meet again, baby, remember me

How my lone guitar played sweet for you that old-time melody

And the harmonica around my neck, I blew it for you, free

No one else could play that tune, you know it was up to me

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