Let’s define some terms of engagement before we begin here. I’m making no claims for what I’m about to write other than a sure certainty that I have nothing original to add to what has already been written about someone I presume is the second most written about artist in the history of popular music.
I love Bob Dylan well and good. Personally, his music affects and nourishes me. In broader cultural terms he absolutely deserves his place in the firmament as one of the great iconoclasts, a razor-sharp revolutionary, a true genius who, alongside the Beatles, claimed more virgin territory than any other musician of the last 60 years. Like I said, nothing new in that view.
As I get older I want to know less and less about the artists I listen to. When it comes to Dylan, I’ve always felt that way. Despite, or perhaps because of, his rightful reputation as perhaps the artist most decoded, scrutinised, and pored over, I’ve never gone beyond what I find in the records. I couldn’t tell you who and what ’Tombstone Blues’ is about. ‘115th Dream’ always makes me chuckle, but I’m clueless on its wider context. For me the records, the sounds, are enough. In almost all cases I’ve never even gone so far as to read the lyrics. I’m not even a studious listener to the 10 Dylan albums I own. As happens most weeks at DRC, I expect that Tom, a record researcher at heart, will be correcting my remarks as and when I place tracks on the wrong albums and albums in the wrong sequence.
So, expect no further analysis. I’ll leave the subject of the wider placement of Bob Dylan in the pantheon of greats with a couple of observations made previously by hundreds of thousands of other people, but which help to explain why I find myself prizing and spending so much time with his music. It seems to me that more than any other artist of the 50s and 60s Dylan privileged words over music, and whilst the sound was often wildly inventive, clashing and smashing styles in ways that famously drove devoted fans demented, he always used it to support and carry the weight of his words and ideas. Unlike the Beatles, Dylan was not a technical innovator, although he did a huge amount to kick through walls between genres. But while the Beatles wrought their revolution from behind their guitars and studio desks, Dylan changed the world from within his own head.
And so to ‘Blood On The Tracks’, and here’s where my carefully prepared excuse of wilful ignorance hopefully begins to pay off. Tom asked us to bring ‘a phoenix record’ and, for the record and in case this is disputed, he clearly said we could interpret it pretty broadly. It took a little while, but ‘Blood On The Tracks’ was, eventually, the first thing that came to mind and once it did there was no dislodging it. I’m claiming is as a phoenix because I always had a fixed idea of it as a comeback or a return to form. Now I realise I may be on shaky ground here. Any Dylanologist worthy of the label could no doubt easily shred this assertion, and I’m more than happy to confess that I formed this impression vaguely and without consideration, such that now I find scrabbling back through the history hoping that I haven’t grossly misunderstood, but hear me out.
I think it’s pretty well accepted that Bob Dylan’s remarkable run of unimpeachable albums ended with 1969’s ’Nashville Skyline’. Fair enough, the album that followed it, ’Self Portrait’ (which I haven’t heard) is by reputation an odd affair and such an out-and-out stinker that it’s possibly a deep-cover masterpiece, or at the very least an artful prank we just haven’t understood yet. Whatever, most critics hated it and it has few defenders 45 years later. It was certainly the first mis-step from an artist who seemed incapable of slipping. Whilst there were well-regarded records in the couple of years that followed, with ‘New Morning’ a notable example (again, I haven’t heard it) there were also messy efforts like ‘Dylan’ and then better-recieved records like ‘Planet Waves’ and ‘Before The Flood’, which I’m discounting as they were collaborations with The Band.
I freely admit I’m making these rules up as I go along, but either way I think it’s fair to say that here was an artist who had a flawless 60s and who then faltered and staggered through the first half of the 70s, never landing anything that felt like a classic, a record for the ages. For someone who released ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and ‘Blonde On Blonde’ in the space of 14 months, this was a major, and his first, dip in form. That was until ‘Blood On The Tracks’.
So there’s my rationale. It remains only for me to qualify this as absolutely one of my favourite Bob Dylan records. I’m not sure it’s the one I would choose to bring as a sole representative of everything that makes Dylan such a critical cultural influence, but it does strike me as possibly the most concise and unified album of his career, largely due to a tight focus in terms of subject, which seems to impose a similar unity on the sounds and milieu of the record. Where ‘Blonde on Blonde’ or ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ get busy throwing off explosive firecracker ideas in all directions, ‘Blood On The Tracks’ is a dedicated singular statement.
It’s famously been considered a record about the breakdown of Dylan’s marriage, something which he’s consistently denied, whilst his son Jakob describes the album as “about my parents”. Dylan claimed at the time that he did not write confessional songs, but also professed difficulty understanding how people could enjoy ‘Blood On The Tracks’ when the songs expressed such pain. Confessional or not, Dylan must be drawing on direct experience to be able to write lyrics that so perfectly capture the confusion, jealously, desire, rage and impotence of a disintegrating relationship. There are heartbreaking songs here, but always twisted and leavened by unexpected reverses, contradictory feelings and self-defeating stances.
Perhaps most importantly for listeners normally resistant to Dylan’s more elliptical works, the songs here are as direct as he ever wrote. There’s only one long, looping, allusionary ballad, ‘Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack Of Hearts’, and even that can be enjoyed straight as an epic romp. The rest are clear and unobstructed songs about love, loss, regret and fate. We’re duty bound here to talk briefly about Dylan as a lyricist. I’ll keep it brief, and remind myself that I have nothing original to say. I do think that there is enough evidence in ‘Blood On The Tracks’ alone to substantiate Dylan as a genius of the form.
He starts most songs with a verse that ties him into what seems to be an impossibly restrictive rhyme scheme. He then precedes to weave dense, rich and fabulous tapestries from within these constraints, using them as platforms rather than shackles. That he can do so without ever, or at least very very rarely, feeling like he’s forcing it, is absolutely remarkable. Ultimately, like the best poets, he uses the limitations of rhyme and meter to harden and strengthen his words, to push him on to even greater heights.
I’m sure it’s been said before, but for me there’s a clear through line from Dylan to contemporary hip-hop. The lyrical density is certainly comparable. The sheer number of words Dylan pours into his records, barely a syllable out of place, can surely only be rivalled by the best rappers. There are also storytelling similarities aplenty. These are wild west songs populated by criminals, strippers and loners. When critics were getting their knickers in a twist over gangster rap in the 90s, I don’t recall any referencing back to the imagery and body count of ‘Blood On The Tracks’. Tied together within poetic structures this leaves songs like the infamous smack-down ‘Idiot Wind’ as pieces that could essentially be picked up in 2015 and rapped straight off the page.
Phoenix or not, career peak or not, ‘Blood On The Tracks’ is a dazzling record from a peerless talent.
Tom listened: I bought Blood On The Tracks when I was too young. I guess I was probably about 20 years of age, and I really didn’t get on with it very well. But then, I really didn’t get on very well with Berlin, Forever Changes and The Hissing of Summer Lawns either at the time I first heard them and they have gone on to become amongst my favourite records.
And I guess it’s always slightly needled me, the reverence with which this album is regarded in comparison to those wonderful albums made in the mid 60s. But hearing Rob’s clean CD (as opposed to my very crackly vinyl), interwoven by his effusive, practically evangelical, commentary and I could begin to see what all the fuss was about. I still can’t quite see why the lyrics are held in such high regard – give me ‘The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face‘ over ‘Come in she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm‘ any day of the week – and, to my mind, Idiot Wind sounds a hell of a lot like Sooner Or Later but these quibbles aside, I really enjoyed listening to this again, re-acquainting myself with it and I will be scouring the second hand record stores to see if I can update my copy.