And my favorite album of all time?
Well it begins with these lines….
Early one morning, the sun was shining
I was laying in bed
Wondering if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
The album is Bob Dylan’s 1975 Blood On The Tracks.
A few things to point out before I wax on its brilliance.
- The album is receiving some serious press attention at the moment because Dylan just released ‘More Blood, More Tracks’ a 6-cd set of outtakes from the recording sessions from the album.
- The original recording sessions are famous for being split between New York City and Minnesota—with the final album taking cuts from both.
- The album has been described as ‘the breakup album to end all breakup albums’ — it came out on the heels of Dylan’s divorce from his wife Sara.
- It was a commercial success, after a few Dylan albums that had critics saying the songwriting master was in a creative rut (after the basically unrivaled production of the 1965-66 Nashville records)
- It’s generally considered one of the greatest rock n’ roll albums of all time—with perfect scores from several different critics.
Okay, I think that’s a good start. It’s many people’s favorite Dylan album, especially those that want a little more vulnerability from the Nobel prize winning lyricist. Try these, for instance:
In 14 months I’ve only smiled once
And I didn’t do it consciously
That’s from ‘Up To Me’ which didn’t even make the album. Yet it’s a brilliant 6-minute song of love and loss. It could’ve been the 11th song on Blood and it would’ve fit. Except that it’s nearly the same chords and music as ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ and, too, has a bit of ‘Shelter from The Storm’ —one of the album’s more famous songs. And ‘Shelter’ deserves its post in folk music history, as the uplifting, love song of indistinct time and romantic rescue.
‘Shelter’, along with some of the album’s other tracks like ‘Tangled Up Blue’ (the first song where the first set of lyrics came from) and ‘Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack of Hearts’ convey the mixed feelings that I think give the album is nuance. It’s not a straightforward “breakup” album (nothing with Dylan is straightforward anyway). It’s an album of loss done by a master of his craft, and its going to be mixed with the kind of writing that explores the whole of the human condition, just with a change of perceptive lens. Things aren’t groovy or wild and metallic like the sixties Dylan songs (think of the jaded, poetic chaos of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ or ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’), they’re solemnly described instead.
And the lyrics and music convey that. Part of the big deal about the two separate recording sessions is the musical sensibility Dylan put in in both. The New York sessions are stripped and bare (which were leaked for years as the so-called ‘Blood On the Tapes’ bootleg). The Minnesota sessions are fuller, with songs often accompanied by an organ which gives some tracks their unique sound.
What the rest of those tracks become is an intimate picture of something. On first listen, you see the breakup album that it’s been tagged as. According to Dylan himself—perhaps the least reliable source on Dylan meanings, ironically—that the songs are creations inspired by Chekhov stories. Jakob Dylan, the son of the couple in question, said the album is “my parents talking”. Regardless of meaning, the album is a wondrous trip of hurt, inspiration, life, and more.
Some examples, yeah?
We’ll start with ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ which goes on like its title sounds. It’s a 3-minute 60s-folk-song without so much as a breathe between verses. It’s a favorite sing-a-long from the album, but it didn’t start as that. My favorite piece from More Blood, More Tracks is the original ‘Lonesome’ which runs as a 5 and a half minute blues jam with a more drawn out, deflated Dylan. There’s no pop. And yet, lyrically, it works on both levels. Because it’s a yarn of anticipated longing, it can play as a poppy ode to current jubilation, or a song of a loss not yet encumbered. ‘Lonesome’s best lyrics:
Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go
Want to see that song’s impact? Search that title on Spotify and see just how many covers have not only been done, but have been committed to albums.
On the album, ‘Lonesome’ ends a not-quite-forlon side 1, coming after the scowl of ‘Idiot Wind’ where Dylan ruminates on the stupidity of young love, with an anger toward poor decisions made. Or maybe it’s none of those things. Who knows?
‘Idiot Wind’ itself forms another unlikely pair, off the heels of ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ one of the albums crushing songs. You can listen to the original or you can listen to this outtake, which comes accompanied with its own lyric video. I suggest taking 4 minutes and 42 seconds of your day and watching it. For lyrics, not much beats this verse:
Bird on the horizon, Sitting on a fence
He’s singing a song for me, at his own expense
And I’m just like that bird, Oh, singing just for you
Oh, I hope you can hear
Hear me singing through these tears
That’s bruising in its own right, but it doesn’t hit the album’s emotional apex. That one is on side 2’s ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ — an fiercely determined breakup song that even Hank Moody recommends singing after you’ve been wrung by heartbreak.
It is the bloodiest of all the tracks.
No ifs, ands, or buts around that. It is the stinging middle of the whole sordid masterpiece here—and through the (only) three variations on More Blood (here’s one), it remains calm, orderly, and desperately downtrodden. It is a song of capitulation, of moving on (in only the pyrrhic sense), and of living with mistakes that’ve made uncomfortable truths.
I could quote the whole song for the purpose of showing that, but I’ll stick with the lines that hit me once as a younger man with the force of 20 million lesser songs, and still streak the rivulets of my veins when they play now.
I see a lot of people, as I make the rounds
And I hear her name both here and there, as I go from town to town
And I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off
As a member of the great church of Bob Dylan, I can say for sure that we get nothing—and I mean, nothing—like this in Dylan’s entire 50-year catalogue. So we take it as some kind of evidence. And the privilege of being a music listener is that you get to make the determination of what that evidence means. For me, it means that Dylan can make a masterpiece of the throngs of sadness. And, in listening through the album and its outtakes, that he managed to will himself to perfection despite those throngs.
I’ll end this post, this fawning over this creative brilliance of an album, the way that the album itself ends:
Life is sad, life is a bust
All you can do, is do what you must
You do what you must do, and you do it well
I do it for you honey baby, can’t you tell?