Sunday, November 13, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Blood On the Tracks

Blood On the Tracks (1975)

If you asked a Dylan fan to suggest three albums, you’d probably get an album from the electric trilogy of ’65-’66, you would probably get either Time out of Mind or “Love and Theft” but maybe Modern Times, and you would get this. Critics tend to lump Dylan albums into periods or moods, and often fans argue over what the best of a certain period is. This is the one album that stands head and shoulders above its competition, and from an objective standpoint it is Dylan’s best album, and from a subjective standpoint it might as well be.

A true masterpiece. I imagine Dylan went out to party with the Band, forgot about Sara for a couple of months while he was on the road and came back to find his marriage in shambles because she was pissed. It was probably a bit more complicated than that. The blood of their relationship is on each of this album’s ten tracks, though, even if Dylan has continued to deny that there is anything on here that relates to him. The lynchpin for Dylan, I think, is that critics were calling the album confessional, and that is misleading. But that doesn’t mean it’s not personal. The songs here are shaded with other things, and it is those things that make it a fantastic album; it is the subject matter that makes it a fantastic breakup album.

Several things were going on in Dylan’s life at the time. He was painting. He was studying with a painter named Norman Raeban who had interesting ideas about the relationship of time to art. Raeban believed art allowed times to intersect and exist on the same plane. Dylan took this idea and you can see it most easily in “Tangled Up In Blue” – is it the story of one couple, seven couples, or any number in between? This technique later allowed songs like “Blind Willie McTell” to take shape. He was also studying open tuning in different ways, supposedly from listening to Joni Mitchell, and this gave the album a unique flavor musically. According to his autobiography, which is mostly unreliable, the songs are all based on stories by Chekov. I don’t know that I can say that for all of them, though he is certainly present in “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” Then there was the album’s original recording. Dylan called in old friends and people he admired to play on the album, then kicked them all out or insulted them until they left until it was down to him and a bass player. The resulting recordings all sounded a bit the same, so over Christmas, days before the album’s release, Dylan’s brother convinced him to rerecord it using some local Minnesota guys he knew, and nearly all of the rerecorded songs are better, featuring different keys, instrumentation and often quite different lyrics than the original versions. Overall, it is hard not to be amazed by this album.

Best song: Idiot Wind – Holy motherload. This song encapsulates the bittersweet agony of life. It starts with gossip (“… they’re planting stories in the press”), and before the end we have near salvation (“… there’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin’ out of a box car door…”) and rancid condemnation (“you hurt the ones that I love best and covered up the truth with lies”) before the angst finally turns inward and ends with mutual blame (“we are idiots, babe”). Dylan lays his divorce bare, dissecting it and incinerating it in equal measure.

Worst song: Meet Me In the Morning – Not necessarily a bad song, just kind of boring compared to the rest of the album’s riches. A musically identical but lyrically different outtake was called “Call Letter Blues,” and was far superior. Over the same riff, it let out couplets like “children cry for mother; I tell them mother took a trip. / I walk on pins and needles. I hope my tongue don’t slip” and “my ears are ringin’, ringin’ just like empty shells. / It can’t be no guitar player; it must be combat bells.”

Best outtake: Tangled Up In Blue – The one New York version that is truly better. The more stripped down instrumentation suits the song well. The opening chords that form the signature riff were repeated ad nauseum by Darius Rucker’s buddies in Hootie and the Blowfish’s “Only Wanna Be With You.” Dylan didn’t sue Rucker for borrowing the hook, but he did sue him for copying and pasting most of the song’s lyrics right out of “Idiot Wind.” The song is about Rucker falling in love with a girl as he teaches her to love Blood On the Tracks and features references to three of the album’s songs. This version is superior mostly because of the penultimate verse. The Minnesota version may be more specific – Montague Street as a setting, a slave trader as his profession – but the simply stated, almost blasély stated, though burning just beneath the surface accusations of “he was always in a hurry, too busy or too stoned, and everything that she ever planned just had to be postponed,” coupled with the anger at her for accepting it, in the powerful “she thought they were blessed with objects and material things, but I never was impressed” give this just the edge it needs.

Notable live version: Shelter From the Storm – This song has been notably performed life many times. The most famous life performance is on Hard Rain, the 1976 live album, where Dylan recasts it as a proto-punk song, blasting away at it with just two power chords. The original is all intricate acoustic guitar. This 2007 version is jazzy and disjointed, with a fluid melody that constantly threatens to slip away but never quite does.

Rhymes: employed/Delacroix (“Tangled Up In Blue”); sin/within/twin (“Simple Twist of Fate”); Honolulu/Ashtabula (“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”); Wabasha/thaw (“Meet Me In the Morning”); Tangier/hear (“If You See Her, Say Hello”) [Yes, I love it when he rhymes place names]

Images: “those words rang true and glowed like burning coal” (“Tangled Up In Blue”); “Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol” (when I first heard this I thought he said “smoke ring around my soul,” which I still think sounds better; “Idiot Wind”); “dragon clouds” (“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”); “her reflection in the knife” (“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”); “a world of steel-eyed death” (“Shelter From the Storm”)

Axioms: “People tell me that it’s a sin to know and feel too much within” (“Simple Twist of Fate”); “You’re gonna make me give myself a good talkin’ to” (You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”); “I always have respected her for doing what she did and getting free” (“If You See Her, Say Hello”); “it’s doom alone that counts;” “beauty walks a razor’s edge” (“Shelter From the Storm”)

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