Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks

Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks
Released January, 1975

When we last caught up with Bob Dylan, out on Highway 61, it was nine albums and a decade earlier. Whereas there were a few Dylan records considered for the afyccim 60’s list, “Blood On The Tracks” was the only contender for the 70’s and is seen by many as his best work from that era. It topped the US album charts and peaked at No.4 in the UK. Rolling Stone’s recent listing of their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time ranked “Blood On The Tracks” in the 16th spot; his third highest under “Highway 61 Revisited” (4th) and “Blonde On Blonde” (9th).

On July 29, 1966, barely two months after the release of “Blonde On Blonde”, Dylan injured himself in a motorcycle accident. Although the scale of his injuries are still unknown, Dylan became reclusive and stayed with his wife Sara to help raise their family in Woodstock. Before the year’s end, he hooked up with the musicians who had backed him on his last tour of the UK, and would eventually become The Band. They recorded demos in a rented house nicknamed Big Pink (yes, THAT Big Pink) which were freely shared by Dylan’s publisher in the hope of attracting cover versions. These songs were famously bootlegged until portions of the sessions were finally released as “The Basement Tapes” in 1975. Dylan’s songwriting was now showing a more direct approach and a heavier influence of country, blues and traditional folk was shining through. This was evident on his last two albums of the sixties, 1967’s “John Wesley Harding” and 1969’s “Nashville Skyline”.

The seventies were a turbulent period for Dylan and his first record for the decade, 1970’s double-album “Self Portrait”, was panned by critics and the public alike. Conversely, he released his follow-up album, “New Morning”, that same year which was hailed as a comeback. In 1972, Dylan landed a role in Sam Peckinpah’s movie “Pat Garret and Billy the Kid”, and also wrote the soundtrack, which featured ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’. 1973’s “Dylan” was a collection of “Self Portrait” outtakes which tanked, but his next record, 1974’s “Planet Waves”, would become his first number one album. He recruited The Band for the accompanying tour, which was documented on the excellent live album “Before The Flood”.

This brings us to “Blood On The Tracks”, which was initially recorded at a New York studio in less than a week during September, 1974. Dylan was notorious for working quickly in the studio, but his drive during these sessions were unprecedented. Not wholly satisfied with the results, Dylan returned to his native Minnesota in December and re-cut five of the album’s songs with session musicians. This accounts for the two distinct arrangement styles used on the record.

Anything predominantly acoustic can be rightly assumed as originating from the New York sessions, which are by far my favourites. The heartbreaking tale of love gone wrong in ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ ranks as one of Dylan’s finest work, no doubt mirroring his failing marriage at the time. I think the album’s best tracks are the last two, ‘Shelter from the Storm’ and ‘Buckets of Rain’, which feel like that cool glass of water you crave on a hot day. I found it hard to go back to the beginning of the album, as I just wanted to keep listening to those songs.

‘Tangled Up In Blue’ is easily the highlight of the Minnesota recordings, and is possibly the album’s most famous track. Although it is hailed as one of his best, I can’t get into ‘Idiot Wind’. Something about the song annoys me and I can’t get past it. I’m bored after about three minutes of ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ too and I struggle to make it to the nine minute finish line.

While this album won’t win you over if you’re not already a Dylan fan, there’s a lot to enjoy here. One of the biggest legacies this record gave the music industry is that you CAN write about your relationship struggles and share your stories of heartbreak, anger and forgiveness. Music doesn’t always have to be about adolescent love or sunshine and lollipops.

We see a different Dylan on “Blood on the Tracks”. He’s a man who had fame and critical lauding, despite not really wanting it. A motorcycle accident in 1966 was the perfect excuse to retreat from the limelight for a while. Between his opus that was “Bringing It All Back Home / Highway 61 Revisited / Blonde on Blonde” and “Blood on the Tracks” there were albums that had a few good singles, but none of them stood up as a whole to the standard we’d come to expect from our favourite troubadour. On “Blood on the Tracks” Dylan seems to strip it all back. His marriage was failing and like any poet he channelled that onto the page and held nothing back.  What results is an album that is confessional, messy, honest, painful, angry and at times achingly beautiful. These songs range the gamut of Dylan’s emotions, from the tenderness that is ‘Shelter from the Storm’ to the accusational ‘Idiot Wind’, as he left no stone unturned. Dylan has said of the album “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying that type of pain, you know?” We need people like Bob Dylan to write albums like “Blood on the Tracks”. They need to be written for those of us who don’t have the lyrical poetry to channel those emotions ourselves. We need them to help us find the voice for whatever our experiences in life may be, because if there is anything that unites us as humans it’s the fact that we all love, we all hurt and we all bleed. Dylan embraced all of that in a beautiful, shambolic mess on “Blood on the Tracks”. Every song that has a place on this album is exactly as it should be.

We all know I’m the biggest Bob Dylan fan the world has ever seen, and to be honest I didn’t really enjoy this album. I did however, find a practical use for it. It’s quite relaxing background music. I was playing it driving to my football game yesterday and it really chilled me out, took my brain off the game when I needed it. So well done, Dylan. You came through when I needed you. There were only two songs on “Blood On The Tracks” that I liked, and liked is being generous. ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ was the best choice to open the album. It’s the quintessential Bob Dylan song, following Dylan’s timing and rhyming (Ha!) structure. Musically though, I find it fairly unremarkable, but I guess Bob Dylan’s strength is his story telling, and maybe he wouldn’t want the music taking away from that? It’s a risky mover though, relying on the lyrics for nigh on six minutes. It lost me at about five minutes with no musical dynamics. Indeed the only change comes in the last minute, with the obligatory Dylan harmonica solo. The other song I thought was ok was ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’, and this is mostly due to the bass lines. In this song I tended to lose the guitar behind the lyrics, and the bass stood right out. Again, the song is fairly repetitive, but it is one of the few I could actually listen to all the way through. I can’t help but feel like Bob Dylan was a poet who realised he was never gonna make any money from poems, so he added a guitar and harmonica and bang, rich and famous. I do dig his stories, if only the music was a little more interesting, I would probably be sold.

Having developed a liking for Bob Dylan during the afyccim 60’s, I was delighted to find that this was favourite album of the 70’s so far.  Compared to 1965’s “Highway 61 Revisited”, this album, “Blood on the Tracks” has a much deeper feel to it. Dylan’s distinct staccato vocal is there, but it has a new warmth and an edge of softness to it, as he tells stories of love and loss.  I think that the album overall has more feeling invested in it, with Dylan pouring his own life experiences and emotions not only into the poetic lyrics, but into the music itself. “Blood on the Tracks” is quite intriguing to me, in that the themes are quite dark and melancholic, with Dylan singing about death, heartbreak, political issues and other depressing subjects, but still I am drawn to listen to it, because it strikes a chord within me, and still manages to maintain that air of warmth. Sometimes Dylan is out of tune, and sometimes his harmonica-ing is all over the place, but it doesn’t matter, it’s the imperfections that make Bob Dylan’s work more brilliant and believable, especially listening to it with the retrospect of modern day music (over) production. My favourite track of the album is ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’, Dylan sings so earnestly with a certain vulnerability that gives me goosebumps. It’s the first Bob Dylan song I’ve heard where I felt he was truly wearing his heart on his sleeve, in a really personal way. Some people have touted this album as Dylan’s greatest; I can’t confirm nor deny this claim, since I have only listened to 2 of his 35 studio albums. But I can say that this is the side of Bob Dylan I like; vulnerable, open, honest and even more believable.

Every week we’d like to hear your thoughts on the album. Just click on one of the links below, or leave a comment here to have your say.

One Comment on “Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks”

  1. connorkenney says:

    You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go is an all time favourite

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