Sunday, March 27, 2016

My Back Pages, Vol. 11: Bob Dylan - Blood on the Tracks

Welcome to My Back Pages, a collaborative staff feature that will survey a landscape of renowned classics and unheralded gems alike, most of which no one around here ever writes a word about. The rules are simple and loose: we won’t cover anything from this millennium and we will avoid all or most favorites—though we might make an exception if something is nearing a milestone anniversary. Beyond that though, anything is fair game. So if you have an album, artist, or genre you would like to see discussed in this feature, feel free to throw us a few recs.

Today, we're finally reaching the artist whose song gave our feature its name: Mr. Bob Dylan. How it took us 11 volumes to get to one of the greatest singer/songwriters of all time is a bit baffling, to be sure, but suffice to say that it hasn't been due to any lack of love for his work. Chris and I could have chosen any number of Dylan records to discuss this week, from 1965's revolutionary
Highway 61 Revisited to the late-career masterstrokes of Time out of Mind and Love and Theft. Instead, we went for the record that might be Dylan's barest and most introspective: 1975's Blood on the Tracks. Written and recorded in the wake of Mr. Dylan's divorce from his wife Sara, Blood on the Tracks catapulted Dylan back into the spotlight after an otherwise lukewarm run of records in the 1970s. Over time, Chris and I have both come to consider it as Dylan's finest album. So head to the replies, hit play on the Rdio playlist, read along with our thoughts, and share your own opinions and stories about this brilliant masterpiece of a record.

Chris Collum: Bob Dylan has written scores of fantastic and very important songs over the course of his legendary career – now in its sixth decade – but the one for which he will remain most famous is inevitably "Like a Rolling Stone." That song was truly revolutionary for a number of reasons. In his 1988 speech honoring Dylan for his induction into the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen described the beginning of "Like a Rolling Stone" as "that snare shot that sounded like somebody [had] kicked open the door to your mind," and Springsteen wasn't the only person whose mind was blown open by the song. It was a long song – over six minutes, unheard of for a rock 'n roll song at the time, especially one intended to be a single. And yet New York City radio stations began demanding full, unedited copies of it after a discarded acetate snatched from a dumpster was worn out after being played on repeat all night at a trendy nightclub in the city. Furthermore, the song's subject matter was not normal at all. In contrast to the songs about love and/or love lost that by and large dominated popular music at the time, "Like a Rolling Stone" expects more from its audience. Dylan offers no answer to the repeated refrain of "how does it feel?" even as he asks the question with more and more vitriol as the song progresses.

But we're not here to talk about "Like a Rolling Stone," or Highway 61 Revisited, the masterful record that it opens. I began by talking about that song in order to draw a contrast between the revolutionary work Dylan did on his trio of masterpiece albums in the late sixties –Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde – and the masterpiece that is Blood on the Tracks, for Blood on the Tracks does not shy away from songs about love and losing love. Rather, it tackles such themes head-on.

Following the release of Blonde on Blonde in 1966 and the subsequent tour, Dylan's prolific stream of great music began to slowly taper off. He was recovering from a motorcycle accident, reportedly battling an amphetamine addiction, and the stress of being on tour constantly was starting to wear him thin. As that decade waned and the seventies began, Dylan quit touring altogether, although he still continued to release records. Just not ones that were nearly as good as his previous work: 1970's double LP Self Portrait to this day remains one of his most lowly records. That was the record that prompted Rolling Stone critic Greil Marcus to famously ask "What is this shit?" upon first listening to the album. In 1974, however, Dylan returned to touring with The Band in tow. Later that year he and his wife Sarah separated in what turned out to be a bitter and very public battle.

Following this, Dylan filled a little red notebook up with lyrics that would become the ten songs that are Blood on the Tracks. He recorded the entire record in an almost totally solo manner in New York City in a very short amount of time, but later re-cut some of the songs in Minneapolis at the advice of his brother who thought that some of the record's longer numbers could benefit from an arrangement that was less stark and bleak. The final version of the album contains cuts from both sessions. For example, "Simple Twist of Fate" and "Buckets of Rain" are both from the New York sessions while "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" are the re-recorded Minneapolis versions.

If "Like a Rolling Stone" kicks down the door to your mind, "Tangled Up in Blue," the opening track on Blood on the Tracks gently eases you into the world of the record. The first thing one notices is the stunningly lush production work, particularly for a record of this era as the mid-seventies were notorious for spawning some of the most "dead-sounding" albums in rock 'n roll history. But none of the life is squashed out of the songs on these records. Lyrically I have personally always considered "Tangled" to be Dylan's finest work; he once described it as a song that "took ten years to live and another two to write." He's said in interviews that the narrative of the song is anything but linear, rather past, present and future coexist in the song's seven verses and meld and swirl seamlessly to form a true epic. The song deals largely with a long-term romantic relationship that went sour, and the narrator – presumably Dylan – reflects back on the last decade of his life, wondering how things wound up the way they did and whether there was anything he could have done to change them. Although Dylan insists to this day that the record is not autobiographical, given the circumstances he was in at the time it's impossible to think that his experiences weren't at least influential in his writing for the album. Furthermore, his son Jakob Dylan (of The Wallflowers) doesn't seem to buy his father's line; the younger Dylan has said in interviews that for him, listening to Blood on the Tracks he hears "my parents talking to each other."

"Tangled Up in Blue" is one of the long songs on the record that could be said to form the heart of the album's narrative. Another of these two is "Idiot Wind," presumably the song from which the record gets its name as Dylan references "blood" and "tracks" in subsequent verses. In contrast to much of the bleak and forlorn writing that surrounds it, the opening verse of "Idiot Wind" is one of the wriest Dylan had written since "On the Road Again" from Bringing It All Back Home. He sings that "They say I shot a many named Grey / And took his wife to Italy," and then as the plot thickens when the wife inherits a fortune and then dies, you can almost see Dylan shrugging ands grinning as he sings, "I can't help it / That I'm lucky." The song then twists and turns through a narrative about another relationship gone awry with Dylan concluding "We're idiots babe / It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves."

The third long-form song on the record is "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," a crime epic and murder ballad told partially by means of a card game allegory. The players include Big Jim, the owner of the town's diamond mine; Lily and Rosemary, who are his mistress and wife respectively; and the Jack of Hearts, a bank robber for whom Lily falls. It appears that Rosemary murders Big Jim after a night of hard drinking while the Jack of Hearts and his crew make off with a small fortune next door and Lily is trapped in the middle, but the genius of the song is that you could listen to it a hundred thousand times and still not necessarily come away with a clear linear picture of the story. It ties into the greater themes of betrayal and love gone bad found elsewhere on Blood on the Tracks in a very abstract way and in that sense is largely unique on the record.

Craig Manning: Chris already did a great job of placing Blood on the Tracks in the context of Dylan’s career, but let me venture back for one more moment before moving forward. For a long time, it was difficult for me to see how anyone could list an album other than Highway 61 Revisited as their favorite Bob Dylan disc. The unbeatable combination of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Desolation Row” still stands as the greatest opener/closer pairing that isn’t “Thunder Road” and “Jungleland,” and the intermediary tracks – particularly the dim and biting “Ballad of a Thin Man” – still sound as fresh today as I imagine they did in 1965. How could an album with so many perfect songs be anything but its creator’s magnum opus?

Of course, that was before I started spending a lot of time with Blood on the Tracks. Released a decade after Highway 61, in the creative dry spell that was Dylan’s 1970s, Blood on the Tracks was a different kind of record than the ones that had made Bob Dylan an icon earlier in his career. Misguided – and in many ways, legitimately bad – albums like Self-Portrait and Dylan had people wondering whether or not the prolific singer/songwriter would ever again reach the heights of his 1960s material. At very least, it seemed that Dylan’s days as “voice of a generation” were long past over. Dylan could hardly have cared less about respecting his folk music roots; he certainly wasn’t going to govern his thematic conversations based on the whims of a fanbase who couldn’t keep up. Disappointed, fans and record labels alike began looking for a “new Dylan.” (Enter Bruce Springsteen.)

But then something happened: Bob Dylan got his heart broken.

The dissolution of a personal relationship has a way of bringing out the honesty in a songwriter like virtually nothing else can. From Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, from Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot out the Lights to Peter Gabriel’s Us, from Beck’s Sea Change to Adele’s 21 (not to mention pretty much every album by every artist from this scene), thousands of records filled with countless songs have purged the subject of a broken heart. Of course, they’ve all done it in slightly different ways, some with downtrodden depression, some with self-deprecating wit, some with bitter and hateful spite, and some with wistful reflection. Regardless of the mood, though, these types of albums and songs resonate because they bring us as the audience closer to the artist in question. There’s something incredibly engrossing and cathartic about listening to an artist as they stitch up their scars and find meaning in their relational wreckages. Or maybe we listen because all just horrible, sadistic, masochistic people. I don’t know. To paraphrase High Fidelity, do we listen to pop music because we’re miserable or are we miserable because we listen to pop music?

The point is this: there’s not much in music that’s more timeless than a break-up album, and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks may well be THE break-up record. Sure, Tunnel of Love is more heartbreaking, Rumours is catchier, and Sea Change more accurately recreates the fall-out of a break-up (by making you want to give up on life and sit inside with the blinds drawn, of course). But as arguably the most lyrical songwriter in the history of rock and roll, Dylan hit upon things with these songs that other songwriters were never able to capture in their own songs.

Case in point, as Chris already noted, is “Tangled up in Blue,” the album’s opening track and mission statement. It’s funny: you’d never think of Dylan as sounding broken. His voice on record, from the heartfelt political entreaties of “Blowin’ in the Wind” to the embrace of impending death on “Not Dark Yet,” always gives off this mischievous air, like he knows something we don’t. The same is still true on most of the Blood on the Tracks songs, but pay attention to the lyrics of “Tangled up in Blue,” and it’s a parade of devastating moments. Right there in the first verse we get “Early one morning the sun was shining, I was laying in bed/Wondering if she'd changed at all, if her hair was still red,” a quiet moment of reflection for the woman that the narrator just can’t seem to let go. In the second verse, the two members of the relationship are abandoning their love, a metaphorical broken-down car, on a dark and lonely highway. In the last verse, Dylan sings, “All the people we used to know/They’re an illusion to me now,” recalling that moment after the death of a relationship where one party or the other deliberately loses touch with mutual friends because doing so is easier than seeing their old flame on a regular basis. And yet, even with all of this emotional weightiness flying around, Dylan still manages to end the song with a wry twist of sarcasm: “We always did feel the same/We just saw it from a different point of view.”

Chris spent most of his write-up discussing Blood on the Tracks through the prism of its long-form tracks, vut while Dylan is largely known for his longwinded album centerpieces, I’d actually argue that the finest songs on this record are the tauter, more concise moments. My favorite song on the album (and one of my favorite Dylan songs, period) is “Simple Twist of Fate,” one of the most gorgeously melodic tracks the songwriter has ever penned, but Blood on the Tracks doesn’t lack for other shorter-form triumphs. Were I to recommend an album for a first-time Dylan listener to check out, it would undoubtedly be this one, which sparks with immediacy and accessibility throughout. From the mournful dirge of “You’re a Big Girl Now” to the heart shattering wistfulness of “If You See Her Say Hello,” from the rollicking harmonica bursts of "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" to the slow-burn blues of "Meet Me in the Morning," and from the lovelorn fondness of “Shelter from the Storm” to the pleasant folk patter of album closer, “Buckets of Rain,” the shiniest nuggets of gold on Blood on the Tracks are simplistic, gingerly melodic, beautifully rendered acoustic songs.

It’s hard to compete with the sheer audacity of Dylan’s electric records, but as a return to the more gentle strains of his earlier work – albeit, with much better production – Blood on the Tracks marks itself as the most listenable, enjoyable, consistent, and cohesive record in Dylan’s collection. It might not have the immediacy of the “the snare shot that sounded like somebody kicked open the door to your mind,” and Dylan himself may well not even like the record (“A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album,” he said once in a radio interview. “It's hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying that type of pain, you know?”), but as both album and break-up album, Blood on the Tracks is unquestionably one of the greatest and most powerful collections of songs ever put on vinyl. Dylan made a lot of music before 1975 and has written a lot of music since, but none of his records stop me in my tracks (bad pun intended) quite like this one.

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