I’m not one who tends to throw around superlatives. But there’s no doubt in my mind that not only is Blood on the Tracks perhaps the most exceptional Bob Dylan album, it is one of the finest albums ever.
Released on Jan. 17, 1975, Blood on the Tracks is seen as a reflection of his failing marriage. Even though Dylan has occasionally indicated the songs aren’t autobiographical, it doesn’t really matter. Either way, the album is one of the most painfully eloquent expressions of love, relationships and anguish ever recorded.
The album has its own somewhat storied history that resulted in half the songs being rerecorded in the Twin Cities. But it isn’t the history that’s significant. It’s the unparalleled content. The album is replete with excellent music. If there is a downfall to BOTT, it’s the fact it came out when you had to flip over an LP to listen to the other side. I was (and still am) always so enraptured by side one that I tended to listen to it again (or even again) rather than flip the LP over. Thus, I’ve neglected side two over the years despite the high quality material it contains, a neglect that’s also reflected here.
The album opens with the now-classic “Tangled Up in Blue,” followed by the often covered “Simple Twist of Fate.” Dylan plays freely with chronology and perspective, respectively, as he does elsewhere on the album. “Tangled Up in Blue” is the first indication that much of the guitar work here is exceptional. The song becomes almost self-propelled as it details the history of a relationship where “We always did feel the same/We just saw it from a different point of view.” The second track, meanwhile, focuses on how a “Simple Twist of Fate” can impact relationships and produce an unintended “emptiness inside.” Most important, both songs demonstrate how crucial Dylan’s intonation and inflection are to the work. While that’s always been important in Dylan’s performances, it is perhaps at its peak here.
While these songs are impeccable, the exquisite opening guitar work tells you that “You’re a Big Girl Now” is something special. In it, the protagonist’s wife/lover has just ended their relationship. Dylan leaves no doubt he’s “singin’ through these tears” and his plea that “I can change, I swear” resonates with painful earnestness. But Dylan’s lyric artistry comes in the last verse, where six words eloquently and simply describe the loss of love. It is, Dylan sings, “Like a corkscrew to my heart.” There is no way reading the lyrics does them justice. The emotive quality of Dylan’s voice makes the feelings palpable.
If “You’re a Big Girl Now” portrays grief, “Idiot Wind” shows other stages of that process, with anger the most evident. The choruses are based on the title and, in the early stages, that wind is “blowing every time you move your teeth.” The anger builds to malice, as Dylan acidly sings:
You hurt the ones that I love best
And cover up the truth with lies
One day you’ll be in the ditch,
Flies buzzin’ around your eyes,
Blood on your saddle
Yet as the song relentlessly pushes forward, there also seems to be some form of acceptance. First, there’s regret:
You’ll never know the hurt I suffered
Nor the pain I rise above
And I’ll never know the same about you,
Your holiness or your kind of love
And it makes me feel so sorry
By the end, it’s a realization: it’s “we,” not just “you,” who are the idiots.
Dylan then shifts momentum with “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” Clocking in at under three minutes, the tune is up-tempo for a reason. Here the love still exists and although the protagonist “could stay with you forever/and never realize the time,” it is he who decides to stay behind. It is a near perfect coda to an emotional wringer.
Much of side two continues the emphasis on lost love and failed relationships. The opening cut, “Meet Me in the Morning,” takes a bluesy approach as the singer copes with the fact that “every day’s been darkness since you been gone.” Dylan then shifts focus with the one song that doesn’t deal with relationship decay (or does it?). Imbued with a rapid western swing feel, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is a lengthy but relatively light-hearted tale. It seems like a story about murder and robbery in an Old West town but debate still continues among devotees about what it actually says and means. Over the course of nearly nine minutes, Dylan does not repeat any phrase or chorus in its detailed and complex story.
Failed relationships, though, return with the final three songs. The simple and straightforward “If You See Her, Say Hello” recognizes that “She still lives inside of me/We’ve never been apart” while “Shelter from the Storm” focuses on how the protagonist was rescued but observes that “Now there’s a wall between us, somethin’ there’s been lost.” Somewhat like side one, Dylan closes with a relatively simple piece, “Buckets of Rain.” Even though there’s buckets of tears flowing out of the singer, there’s a hint of hope underlying the message.
Some might think all this becomes boring or too depressing. But Dylan’s use of different styles and perspectives keeps each song fresh. More important, because they feel so brutally honest, it is hard to imagine these songs won’t resonate with the listener’s own experience and emotions. Dylan is seen as the spokesman of a generation, the folk hero turned traitor, the epitome of the protest singer. Yet the poetry and emotion of BOTT is where Dylan most eloquently reveals the true power of music.
Life is sad
Life is a bust
All ya can do is do what you must.
You do what you must do and ya do it well
“Buckets of Rain,” Bob Dylan