What can I say about this album that hasn’t already been said? This is the kind of locomotive most commonly pulling the bandwagon of retrospective reviews of records that are considered to be ‘classics’. In this series of articles, which will (lazily) cover music that has already made its mark on history, such sentiments will be put out of their misery. Or maybe not, depending on the mood of the author, who hardly knows what he’s doing anyway. Same goes for boring stuff like “historical context” or “background knowledge”, which the author only uses to fill in the blank spaces in his thought processes (swear to God). Other than that, there will be no pretense of objectivity (because there is no such thing), but an approach based on love for beautiful music.
Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks
Dear whoever, I’m feeling lonely and hungover and that’s always a good state of mind to put on ‘Blood On The Tracks’ by Bob Dylan, which some consider to be his best, however I personally just feel connected to this album like one human heart connected to another. I’m sure this album has its share of flaws (everything has), but I can neither find them, nor do I want to. Real beauty can stand on its own feet, it has little use for perfection.
I remember the very first time I listened to ‘Blood On The Tracks’. I will not bore you with the tedious details of my sorry state of mind at the time. Suffice it to say that by the time ‘Shelter From The Storm’, the next-to-last song, arrived on the scene, I was bawling like a baby. The song, which piles verse upon verse of a restless journey through the chaos of a cold, merciless world, and at the end of each verse offers a soothing image: ‘Come in, she said, I’ll give you/Shelter from the storm’, was just too much for me. I couldn’t bear the unfazed beauty emerging not outside, but in the very middle of all the misery and hardship one has to go through. It’s a powerful image, with all sorts of evocative details added to it over the course of five and a half minutes.
That instance was by far not the only time ‘Blood On The Tracks’ would serve as cheap therapy for my petty problems. I mean, things like language and music can really only roughly convey what we really feel. Bob understands these limitations well, I suspect, and so his best album (in my opinion) is probably as emotionally articulate as possible. Unsurprisingly this is achieved by keeping things rather simple. The arrangements are sparse, half of the songs sound almost like demos (recorded in New York with just Bob’s voice, guitar, harp and Tony Brown playing the bass). The other half was re-recorded in Minneapolis with local session musicians at the suggestion of Bob’s younger brother David. The end result, comprised of recordings from both sessions, hits all the right notes.
Take album opener ‘Tangled up in Blue’, which seems, at first, all over the place with its dense and confusing storytelling, but after a while it becomes clear that this is not a chronological or even accurate retelling of events. All the connections are purely emotional, transcending time and space and leaving reality behind, like memories often do. It sets the tone for the whole album, which picks up this particular thread several times, most notably on ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’, the best song on here. It introduces itself as a joyful lovesong, told from the point of view of a lover in pure honeymoon mode, but a very subtle implication of inevitable heartbreak and doom lies beneath (hence the song’s title, serving as a bitter punchline). It goes to show how intense memories can sometimes take us back to where we once were, where nothing has gone wrong yet, and then right back to the bleak present, almost simultaneously. It’s a truly haunting song. Bob even manages to squeeze in a reference to the infamously tumultous relationship of French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Actually “squeeze in” is probably the wrong term. It fits in seamlessly.
For all the authenticity and bare emotional honesty that can be felt on the album, it also becomes clear from all the clever storytelling devices and blurred lines between fact and fiction that these songs were never meant to be particularly personal songs. It’s just that sometimes a raging storm forms inside of a person’s subconscious and can be held at bay for only so long until it all comes pouring out. No matter how hard you try to keep it inside. And that’s what this music feels like – a sad, bitter, gut-wrenching, but ultimately liberating cleansing of the soul, set in motion by the instinct to survive.
That is why this album is so universal, why it has touched so many hearts, including mine. Forget about “archetypical breakup album”. Fuck all that “best Dylan album” shit. Who cares about ranking or cultural significance when it’s all about a human being putting their very soul on wax for everyone to connect with, to find themselves in it, in the very details? When it shows us we’re not all that different, not as alone as we’re often convinced we are? Look, this is not rocket science. It’s Rock n Roll, for fuck’s sake, a branch of music that even today is still sometimes condescendingly dubbed “entertainment music” by music snobs. The magic of it is that almost everyone can do it, but it takes a special person and a special moment in their life, takes all the planets to align, to make something real and unaldulterated. This right here is one of those moments, documented for all the world to hear. I strongly suggest you take the opportunity.
After ‘Buckets Of Rain’, the album closer, a quiet sigh (of relief? longing? tiredness?) can be heard in the background. Feels somewhat appropriate. The song itself is so poignant and simple, the less a creature void of form like me rambles on about it, the better. Actually, that’s probably true about all the songs. Maybe even music in general. What the hell am I trying to say?
Rating: R for Radiates Loveliness