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Classic album of the fortnight: Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks
Liam Mackey, 13 Feb 2003
Release date: October 1975. Label: Columbia. Producer: Bob Dylan
Poet, protest singer, folk-rocker, psychedelic troubadour, evangelist, song & dance man, spokesman for an entire generation: there are a million Bob Dylans in the Naked City but perhaps only one truly naked Bob Dylan – and he’s to be found on Blood On The Tracks.
Dylan’s most unconvincing protest is that this 1975 album was not autobiographical. For sure, he may have fictionalised some of the facts, but the listener wouldn’t even need to be aware that the record followed the collapse of his marriage to Sara Lowndes, to appreciate that the blood on these tracks comes straight from the heart. The truth is in here. These songs of love and loss and anger and despair don’t lie: this, indisputably, is the bard stripped bare.
But it’s not the mask slipping that makes this so compelling, nor even the fact that tales of the broken-hearted invariably offer a sharpened point of identification for most sentient beings – no, what elevates Blood On The Tracks to greatness is that Dylan’s low personal ebb produced a high-tide of creativity. Pain may not be a prerequisite of great art but Blood On The Tracks does suggest that it helps.
Even with electric instrumentation and drums on board, the feel of the soundtrack is predominantly acoustic yet, despite the subject matter, anything but bleak; in fact, there’s an engaging warmth to the playing that draws you in before the words knock you off your feet. And on more resigned, philosophical tracks, like ‘You’re Going To Make me Lonesome When You Go’ and ‘Buckets Of Rain’, Dylan even manages to come up with a couple of the sweetest, sunniest tunes he’s ever penned.
But those are the comparatively tranquil valleys dwarfed by a Himalayan range of songwriting peaks. The opening track, ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, is simply staggering: a mid-tempo narrative of love found and lost, it somehow accommodates the weight of a novel and the scope of a movie inside six minutes of inspired words and music. Bob Dylan has written many great songs but in ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ he may have painted his masterpiece.
Or, perhaps that accolade goes to ‘Idiot Wind’ – for it’s one measure of this record’s achievement that the whole album doesn’t simply slide downhill from the giddy heights of its curtain-raiser. ‘Idiot Wind’ is the lover spurned at his most vitriolic but the bitter mood produces some searing imagery and a vocal performance to match. "Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy/I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory and all your ragin’ glory"– the words are impressive enough on the page, but Dylan’s switchblade enunciation and phrasing lends them a corrosive edge.
The record’s quota of haunted, midnight ballads – including ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ and ‘If You See Her Say Hello’ – maintains the high standard of writing and performance, but in this exalted company it’s ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’ that lingers longest in the mind, with its stunning film noir imagery and almost Waitsian small-hours mood.
The smouldering blues of ‘Meet Me In The Morning’, the great, rollicking wild west fable that is ‘Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts’ and the biblical allegory of ‘Shelter From The Storm’ reinforce the sense of a songwriter in transcendent form despite – or perhaps because of – the emotional hellhounds on his trail.
And now we know that there was even more where this lot came from. The Biograph and Bootleg boxed sets offer some of the missing pieces from the ‘Tracks’ sessions, including ‘Call Letter Blues’, a more vitriolic ‘Meet Me In The Morning’ soundalike and, most impressively, ‘Up To Me’, a kind of companion piece to ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ that gives the latter epic a right run for its money. Its last lines are also Dylan at his most direct, and quite literally, recognisable: "The harmonica around my neck, I blew it for ya free/No-one else could play that tune, ya know it was up to me’.
Alternate versions of all the ‘Tracks’ tracks are also in existence, since the record as it was released was actually a second attempt to get this masterwork down, after Dylan had decided he was unhappy with the original sessions. Again, the boxed sets help with alternate versions of some of these songs, including a slightly more urgent version of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ that features different verses and a great recurring slide lick. Arguably, this is actually superior to the official version, though Dylan, who has repeatedly reworked his songs throughout his career, believes that the definitive take is to be found on the ‘Live Dylan’ set. Bearing in mind, of course, that to live outside the law you must be honest, something close to the full alternate Blood On The Tracks is also pretty widely available as a bootleg called Blood On The Tapes.
Back on the official release, things come full circle with the quietly infectious ‘Buckets Of Rain’. Beat-up but not quite beaten, the narrator still finds that at the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe. "Life is sad, life is a bust/All you can do is do what ya must/Ya do what you must do and ya do it well/I do it for you, ah honey baby can’t ya tell."
Before or since, nobody else has done it better.