BOB DYLAN: BLOOD ON THE TRACKS (1975)
1) Tangled Up In Blue; 2) Simple Twist Of Fate; 3) You're A Big Girl Now; 4) Idiot Wind; 5) You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go; 6) Meet Me In The Morning; 7) Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts; 8) If You See Her, Say Hello; 9) Shelter From The Storm; 10) Buckets Of Rain.
I must say, I have never been much fond of the title of this album — seems altogether more suitable for a Slayer than a Bob Dylan LP. Not only is ʽbloodʼ a fairly strong word for Bob, but the title also works towards a very straightforward understanding of the record, namely, that the tracks are indeed figuratively soaked in his blood, that is, convey his genuine spiritual pain like nothing has ever conveyed it before. The mask is dropped, the barriers removed, the cabbalistic verbal fog cleared, here is Robert Zimmerman, and here is a pint of his own blood that he offers you to drink up like some modern day Jesus. Real strong hemoglobin and all.
That Dylan's family problems and divorce case have provided inspiration for these songs seems quite obvious; much less obvious, when you really start thinking about it, is this idea of a Dylan freely opening his heart and mind to the general public, allowing to connect on a much more intimate level than before. The greatest advantage of Blood On The Tracks is not so much its «sincerity», about which we can really only guess, as its «accessibility». Planet Waves had already introduced a serious change to Dylan's lyrical style, and here it is carried even further — even if not all the lyrics begin to make sense, all of them at least give a feeling of making sense. The air is still clouded with thick metaphors and allegories, but they heartily invite interpretations: "beauty walks a razor's edge, someday I'll make it mine" does make one ponder its possible meaning much more effectively than "six white horses that you did promise were finally delivered down to the penitentiary", if you know what I mean.
Subsequently, there has always been, and will always be, two camps of Dylan fans: the Blonde On Blonde camp and the Blood On The Tracks camp (there is also a separate Highway 61 Revisited camp, but that is a different talk altogether — it is mostly populated by people who like an angrier, dirtier, kick-ass-er, rock'n'rollish Bob Dylan). The «BOB» camp appreciates Dylan for the enigma, the unexplainable magic; the «BOT» camp worships him for the revelation, the suffering humanism. The camps are not forever fixed in place — normally, the case is that every once in a while, somebody «achieves a higher degree of illumination» and defects from the BOT camp to the BOB camp, but I have also seen opposite cases, where haughty young people would snub BOT for its relative simplicity and triviality, then gradually, over the years, succumb to its charms and renounce their trendy elitism of old.
Amusingly, though, it's not as if there weren't anything in common between those two records. Listen closely to ʽIdiot Windʼ and you will see that it amply borrows from ʽOne Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)ʼ — not just the same organ tone, but even some of the same melodic moves: "I couldn't believe, after all these years..." is pretty much the same line as "I didn't realize, just what I could hear...". It is only when you see these little occasional shake-hands between songs that you understand — this whole «feud» is completely pointless, and rests entirely on flimsy subjective impressions, liable to change with every next blow of the wind.
Overall, Blood On The Tracks happens to have a more «serious» tone, showing none of the sense of humor that could either attract or repel in the case of songs like ʽRainy Day Womenʼ or ʽLeopard-Skin Pill-Box Hatʼ; and it also happens to be a little more «stripped» in terms of arrangements, with no traces of brass and, more importantly, very little electric guitar presence (ʽMeet Me In The Morningʼ is the only song here with a loud electric lead part). These factors create the impression of intimacy / personality / altogether confessional atmosphere, which charms the pants off the souls of so many people, but how close that impression is to the «truth», we will never know. All we know is that, for the first time since Blonde On Blonde, Bob has given us a collection of songs that punch hard and reach deep — a similar «soul transfusion» from one vessel to another (John Wesley Harding I judge on a different level — more like a meaning-of-life-style type of global mystery that is much bigger than the singer and the listener taken together).
It's a good thing, too, that he let go of The Band for those sessions, as they had turned out to be more of an encumbrance than a blessing on Planet Waves. Although the final credits list quite a lot of different people taking part in the recordings, they are all split in two different bands — one backing him up in New York, another providing local services in Minneapolis, where he re-recorded several of the tracks — and the only thing that technically separates Blood On The Tracks from the ascetic sounds of John Wesley Harding is a near-constant keyboard presence (some of those provided by Paul Griffin, who'd previously played with Bob on parts of the Blonde On Blonde sessions, for that matter).
Bob's own acoustic guitar playing is at the heart of every single song on here, and it looks as if he'd been taking lessons — just take a look at ʽBuckets Of Rainʼ, for instance, which could have easily worked as an instrumental (some of the chords sound like they came right off the Pat Garrett soundtrack, which, for that matter, was no slouch in playing terms either). The album is really only marginally louder and denser than his early acoustic stuff, but it still produces a much «fuller» feeling, both because the guitar is treated more like a musical instrument than a «partner for comfort», and also because of the production — credited to Bob himself, by the way, which was a first for the man, and now we know how Bob wants his own records to sound: soft, deep, and with just a small touch of echo on the vocals so that it doesn't sound too homely and cozy. He's not exactly calling out to us from the lower depths, but he's distanced himself a bit so we no longer have to smell each other's socks or anything.
As for the songs themselves — these are not really «songs» as usual. These are magic incantations: mantras, whose repetitiveness is brought upfront and shoved in your face, take it or leave it. Notice how most of the song titles form sentences or at least complex phrases, and then inavoidably conclude or constitute each chorus, so that you have them memorized upon first listen: ʽTangled Up In Blueʼ, ʽSimple Twist Of Fateʼ, ʽYou're A Big Girl Nowʼ and so on. This can be no mere coincidence — it can only reflect a maniacal desire to hammer these statements inside our heads, and it could be seriously irritating if only these mantras, taken all together, did not form such an awesome kaleidoscope of their author's state of mind.
Side A: ʽTangled Up In Blueʼ opens the show with fuss / irritation / confusion, as the title would suggest. ʽSimple Twist Of Fateʼ is melancholic introspection — something that happens once the nerves calm down and one takes some time to reflect on all the damage done. ʽYou're A Big Girl Nowʼ is all sorrow and tears, held back as much as possible but still showing. ʽIdiot Windʼ brings on scorn, rage and curses (good thing for Bob he put in that last "we are idiots, babe" chorus, including himself in the guilty party, or else this might have become his most misogynistic song ever). ʽYou're Gonna Make Me Lonesomeʼ brings on more sorrow, but now it is subtly hidden under a veil of bouncy retro-folk, just like them old jigsters did it in pre-war times.
Side B: ʽMeet Me In The Morningʼ throws in some acid intonations with a nod to the 12-bar blues form. ʽIf You See Her, Say Helloʼ is like an older, creakier, wrinklier brother to ʽGirl From The North Countryʼ: the girl has now moved to Tangier, but she can still look him up if she's got the time. ʽShelter From The Stormʼ, however, concludes the album on an almost unexpectedly optimistic note — consolation, redemption, basic human care, no need to commit suicide after all. ʽBuckets Of Rainʼ acts like an epilogue that pretty much summarises everything about the album: "Life is sad / Life is a bust / All ya can do / Is do what you must / You do what you must do and you do it well / I do it for you honey baby can't you tell?". Yes we can.
I have omitted ʽLily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Heartsʼ from the list, as you can see, because even after years and years and years of listening, I still cannot quite understand what this song is doing on an album like this, other than functioning as «that one song that shouldn't fit in because no Bob Dylan album can be that predictable». Its complicated, twisted story should have rather been saved for a Traveling Wilburys album or something like that — nor is it even melodically interesting or just plain funny (like a ʽBob Dylan's 115th Dreamʼ). But some people like it, and some even think it belongs — if only in its role of a thick question mark. Of course, it also has to be the longest song on the album, goes without saying.
As usual, the album thrives on Bob's little perks and twists — mantras are mantras, sure enough, but he never forgets to vary his intonation from chorus to chorus, so that no two tangled up in blues or simple twists of fate sound exactly the same way: within each of the specified moods there are further teensy-weensy mini-moods, and indeed, it all easily makes up for one of Bob's most realistic-looking performances. (Then again, reality as such is rarely that exciting). In addition, ʽIdiot Windʼ is really the last time ever we would see such a fulminating, life-threatening Bob without a trace of elderly whine or lyrical banality — feel free to enjoy every second of its eight minutes, and particularly the haughty-snotty irony of the final protracted vowel in "sweet lady", which I personally enjoy in a masochistic way: it is Bob's equivalent of a condescending grin to his audience, and I, for one, humbly acknowledge his right to it. Besides, "we are idiots, babe, it's a wonder we can even feed ourselves" is a suitable conclusion to those eight minutes, and one that only gets stronger and stronger with each passing year.
As a sidenote, I would also like to commend Tony Brown, the little-known bass player on the New York sessions, for perfectly guessing the vibe of the album and providing a wonderfully restrained, but meaningful, counterpoint for the man — particularly on ʽSimple Twist Of Fateʼ, whose pensive atmosphere is largely due to his laconic plucking, and on ʽShelter From The Stormʼ, whose repetitiveness might get a little wearisome if there weren't any extra meat added to Bob's strumming (the bass actually plays a more complicated melody, and it is almost joyfully danceable in places, again, well in touch with the redemptive mood of the song).
Winding down on this: if somebody wanted me to formally narrow my choice of «best Dylan album» to one, Blood On The Tracks would have to be left out for several reasons — the simplest of which would be that he was 34 years old at the time, and we should never trust anybody over 30, or, more accurately speaking, the «gold» layer of Dylan's talent was already depleted in the mid-Sixties. Blood On The Tracks is not particularly «unique» — it is well within the paradigm of introspective folk-based singer-songwriters, and there may be Neil Young or Joni Mitchell albums lying around that would be ready to give it battle in terms of depth, melodicity, and consistency. In fact, the follow-up to Blood On The Tracks would, surprisingly enough, superate it as far as sheer boldness and experimentalism are concerned.
But on the other hand, the album is unique — it is Bob Dylan's «great humanistic record», relating to his mid-Sixties stuff much the same way as Dark Side Of The Moon relates to Barrett-era Pink Floyd: more accessible, more compatible with «the flow», less mysterious and enigmatic, and if these aren't virtues by themselves, they sure as heck ain't flaws, either. Always nice to see a man explore so many different corners of the human soul in one well-focused sweep (and then blow it all away without giving a damn on ʽLily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Heartsʼ) — and too bad he never even came close to repeating this feat again: bleakness, depression, paranoia, and, occasionally, Jesus would soon enough get the better of him, and we would never again see the same ideal balance, where for every sob of ʽYou're A Big Girl Nowʼ there would be a snarl of ʽIdiot Windʼ, and for every confused and insecure ʽTangled Up In Blueʼ there would be an optimistic and consolatory ʽShelter From The Stormʼ. Thumbs up, of course — not forgetting the album sleeve, where our hero gets himself a Byron/Chopin-sort of early 19th century romantic profile (or should we say Mendelssohn for accuracy?). Suits the songs just fine, I'd say.
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