Friday, July 3, 2009

Bob Dylan 18: Blood On The Tracks

Lester Bangs called it a “crying towel” for people recovering from a breakup. Jakob Dylan says that while Nashville Skyline is the sound of his parents falling in love, this album reminds him of his parents fighting. Even the man himself, shortly after its release, expressed confusion as to how anyone could enjoy listening to something that was so obviously so rooted in pain. The facts are these: Dylan was back home on Columbia, and with an album full of the lyrical twists and turns worthy of a man at the peak of his powers.
To this day Blood On The Tracks still features in arguments over which is Dylan’s best album. It’s up there, certainly; it’s also a good way to convert those who can’t stand Dylan’s voice, since his delivery here isn’t as easily parodied. And if they’re nursing a broken heart, all the better.
A brief rundown of the tunes: “Tangled Up In Blue” is a perfect opener, and “Simple Twist Of Fate” follows nicely in a different atmosphere. “You’re A Big Girl Now” lacks the ache of the New York version (more about that later), but “Idiot Wind” is a nasty epic. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” turns out to be happier than it seems on the surface.
“Meet Me In The Morning” is a pretty different sound from the others, and is rare for its simpler blues structure. “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” is an enticing story, but the carnival atmosphere can be distracting. “If You See Her, Say Hello” is a sad lament, if a bit overdone. “Shelter From The Storm” takes us back to the stark territory, and it’s welcome by this time. “Buckets Of Rain” is one of the oddest yet most effective ends to any album, much less Dylan’s. Each of the ten parts fits, not quite perfectly—but there’s more to the story.
Dylan recorded the album over four days in New York City, then went to visit his brother in Minnesota for Christmas. There it was suggested that the album was too low-key, that all the songs sounded too much alike, so he hired a local pickup band and redid half of the songs, drastically changing the lyrics of three. So the album as released was a mix of the upbeat sound of the (revised) “Tangled Up In Blue” and the mellower sound of “Simple Twist Of Fate”.
That would be fine, except a test pressing of the original lineup made the rounds, leading to countless bootlegs and speculation on what should have been released. Indeed, when the authorized Bootleg Series box came out in 1991, it included four tracks from the New York sessions, but three of those were different takes from the ones on the acetate. Luckily, the original “You’re A Big Girl Now” had already appeared on Biograph, alongside the outtake “Up To Me”, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. To hear these after you’ve inhaled the album proper is a revelation; in the New York versions of these forlorn songs of unrequited or lost love, the hurt is more subdued, yet just as real.
During the crowdsourcing era, Columbia’s reissue division teased fans that Blood On The Tracks was due for a “Legacy Edition”, suggesting a double-disc expansion that would contain “both” versions of this album. Many years later, after a series of truly revelatory Bootleg Series volumes, prayers were pretty much answered.
The worst thing about More Blood, More Tracks was its title, which sounded like it had to be an April Fool’s joke. In keeping with all-or-nothing attitude of the times, it was available as a single-disc “alternate” album of all the songs plus “Up To Me”, or a limited six-CD set offering every single take from the New York sessions, and remastered versions of the five Minnesota remakes. That would be the way most fanatics would go, though hearing multiple takes of the same eleven songs spread over four days’ is a lesson in endurance. Now we finally have clean versions of the original “Lily, Rosemary” and “Idiot Wind”, the latter delivered more like the aftermath of the argument instead of the midst of it. We can hear him start the sessions solo, then a band arrives, to frankly limited success, before he pares it back to just him and a bass player. (Early discarded takes of “Simple Twist Of Fate” veer too close to ‘70s MOR territory, or at least the following year’s Paul Simon album, while a slow burn through “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome” has potential.) It can be fascinating to hear him try further takes on songs he’d already nailed, and to learn that it’s his heavy hands on the Hammond for the album version of “Idiot Wind”. And what Bootleg Series would be complete without yet another stab at “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue”?

Bob Dylan Blood On The Tracks (1975)—
Bob Dylan More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14 (2018)—4


  1. I rember reading a review in the NME of it about a month before it was released. It was the first Dylan album apart from 'Before The Flood' that I bought the day it came out. Getting it home and playing it to death. Then I acquired a tape of the test pressing plus some live recordings. The tapes and clicks and jumps in 'Idiot Wind'.

    As a then 15 year old I though it was extraordinary (got me into searching out Rimbaud and Dante). However it wasn't until about my marraige broke up 10 years ago that I really knew what he was singing about.

    His best? It is up there.

  2. when i first heard the album all the way through, only about a year or so ago now, i was struck at how buckets of rain jumped out at me. the other songs sounded right, but that track seemed wrong, or at least odd. not singable, not sad, not anything i could place my hat on.
    damn, nice to be able to have to think about a song. can't say that about too many songs on the planet. and it is what separates dylan from almost everyone else.

  3. Davy and Dick -- thanks for the comments. It's a pretty special album, isn't it?

  4. One of the best albums ever recorded. The NY sessions are also very enjoyable.