‘A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying the type of pain, you know?’
That is Dylan’s take on this album. It’s true, ‘enjoy’ does seem an odd word to use. But having said that, I would say that it’s his best. Which kind of pain his he talking about? It is possible that he’s talking about Chekov’s short stories, as he maintains. It seems likely that it might be the break-up of his marriage, although this he denies. I won’t speculate too much. Whatever his inspiration, he doesn’t half deal with his subject matter well.
It’s not something which was new to Dylan – classic early songs like ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ and ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ offer musically beautiful yet bitter insights into failing relationships – but you get the feeling that he wasn’t exactly in love to start with. On Blood on the Tracks he more fully captures the conflicting emotions of a collapsing love – often in the same song. The bitterness is not gone, especially in songs like ‘Idiot Wind’, (‘you hurt the ones that I loved best, and covered up the truth with lies/one day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzing around your eyes/Blood on your saddle’) but even here, juxtaposed with pain, there is 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.’ The melancholic mixture of bitterness and regret permeates the album, yet, while it is certainly thematically unified in this way, each song has its own individual colouring. ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ is an energetic and intense opener, which gives away to the dreamy yet regretful ‘Simple Twist of Fate’; ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ seems upbeat but the title betrays a sense of loss, and ‘Meet Me In The Morning’ is full on blues. In ‘Shelter From The Storm,’ Dylan created the most engaging and poignant song possible using just three chords. And the album closes with ‘Buckets of Rain’ and guitar-work showcasing real dexterity not normally associated with the singer-songwriter.
‘Dylan strikes the perfect balance by creating an album which is unified, but without being samey’
It could have been so different. Originally recorded in New York in September 1974, the entire album was recorded in Open E tuning, with sparse instrumentation. Many of these versions are undoubtedly beautiful. I especially like the New York versions of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ and ‘Idiot Wind’. But when considering what makes an album consistently engaging, it is hard to argue that the original version would have been. Had five of the songs not been rerecorded in Minnesota, the album would have been overbearingly poignant, and perhaps quite bland; many of the original songs used the the same chords and similar musical phrasings. Moreover, songs like ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ and ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ actually unarguably benefit from being revisited. Had only these two been rerecorded, and others left alone, they would have been anomalous. As it is, Dylan strikes the perfect balance by creating an album which is unified, but without being samey. ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ and ‘Idiot Wind’ lent themselves to the energy which the Minnesota musicians give them – the NY versions aren’t ‘better’ per se, just different. On an album level, the change was needed. Listening to the five which were left alone and not rerecorded, for example, ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ and ‘Shelter From the Storm’, you can here echoes of one in the other, they’re in the same key, there’s the occasional same descending chord progression, etc. In its released version, this is effective. If you could hear such similarities across all the songs however, it might have been a bit tedious.
‘He rarely gives the impression of giving a damn about anything, but here he clearly does’
But Dylan’s BEST album? What about Highway 61 Revisited, when he unambiguously shed his folkster-spokesperson persona? Blonde on Blonde, where his acid tongue was unleashed across rock’s first double-album? The biblical references of John Wesley Harding, the singing voice of Nashville Skyline, which, rarely for Dylan, is actually pleasant? The underrated Love and Theft? Desire? The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan? Christmas in the Heart? Maybe not the last one. But he’s made a lot of phenomenally good albums. How can this be definitively set apart? Obviously, it is ultimately a personal judgement. But for me, it is so refreshing to hear Dylan being genuinely heartfelt. He rarely gives the impression of giving a damn about anything, but here he clearly does. I
find it hard to see how the collapse of his marriage to Sara Dylan didn’t affect the writing of this album, not necessarily because of a close similarity in events described in the songs to reality (although his son has said ‘The songs are my parents talking’), but because he so perfectly manages to capture the conflicting emotions involved when a love is falling apart. You won’t find him snidely commenting about brand-new leopard-skin pill-box hats here. There is bitterness. But also love, and also loss. He said of Highway 61 Revisited that “I’m not gonna be able to make a record better than that one… Highway 61 is just too good. There’s a lot of stuff on there that I would listen to.” Well, he never did lack self-confidence. But then he went and made an album which went further, and was too moving, too painful, too powerful for even himself to handle. Which, given his persona, makes it quite something.