CK Retro Review: Blonde On Blonde by Bob Dylan

Blonde On Blonde was the culmination of Bob Dylan’s super-dynamic mid-60’s period of album-making and non-stop touring. His music would take a radical turn in the aftermath of both the album’s release and Bob’s retreat from the touring merry-go-round, but what he left behind on this incredible double-album, which is on the short list not just of Dylan’s finest discs but but also on the list of greatest albums ever, is enough to satiate music fans for a lifetime. Here is a track-by-track review.

THREE STARS

14. “Obviously Five Believers”- Robbie Robertson’s stinging licks emerge from the murk of this feisty track. Still, the song suffers when compared with some of the other up-tempo songs on the album, which retain this song’s momentum while adding much more nuanced playing.

13. “Pledging My Time”- Dylan slows this one down to a Chicago-style, deep-dish blues, which allows him to sink into his harmonica solos with grit and gusto. Yet his vocal delivery is unfazed and bemused, as if the trials his narrator is enduring are something to be shrugged off.

12. “Temporary Like Achilles”- Harold “Pig” Robbins stands out here with some saloon-like piano, milking every bit of sorrow from Dylan’s sad-sack narrator in the process. Only Bob would embellish an otherwise straightforward blues song by giving the name of a hero from Greek mythology to his romantic rival, but it’s that kind of touch that elevates the song above the mundane.

FOUR STARS

11. “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”- Dylan takes lead guitar in the early part of the song before Robertson takes the reins the rest of the way to add commentary to Bob’s vocals. The society girl who wears the titular chapeau clearly has reached a social status far outside the narrator’s reach. The beauty of Dylan’s lyric is the way this guy demonstrates his disgust while still betraying some frustration at being left behind.

10. “4th Time Around”- Was Dylan acknowledging The Beatles’ attempts to enter his folky domain or was he poking fun at them? Probably a little bit of both, since he borrows the basic chord pattern and episodic nature of “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” for this hypnotic track. Even when the satire/parody/homage is undetectable, the song works thanks to the quirky humor of the story.

9. “Absolutely Sweet Marie”- The Blonde On Blonde band’s locomotive churn is fantastically alluring here, as is Dylan’s laconic delivery. Frustrations, sexual and emotional, are expressed with bonkers imagery by Bob, and then he punctuates it all with a searing harmonica solo that expresses all of the hurt and anguish that the laid-back vocal tries to hide.

8. “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”- The general chaos of the recording carries this one a long way even if it’s impossible to know just how far Dylan’s tongue was embedded in his cheek. Maybe it’s a straightforward ode to pot as the answer to life’s hassles, or maybe it’s a sly lament about Bob’s own status as a pin-cushion for the press. Whatever it is, it’s a blast every time it hits the speakers.

7. “Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine”- Every line in this testament to the benefits of breaking off a crumbling relationship is both ingenious in the choice of words and inevitable in that’s it hard to imagine any other words to replace them. That’s Dylan’s singular skill, turning a light-hearted, trumpet-fueled romp into something more profound and enduring.

FIVE STARS

6. “I Want You”- It’s one of Dylan’s most welcoming songs, with it’s sunbeam melody inviting even the most skeptical to appreciate its charms. Once he’s got them hooked, Bob can let loose an entire army of secondary characters in the verses as examples of the distractions that the narrator must endure to get to the object of his desire. It all boils down to that lovely chorus, wherein the world’s greatest songwriter sums it all up with striking three-word simplicity.

5. “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again”- First of all, the irresistibly jaunty music is sturdy and surprising enough to withstand the song’s length, and that’s a crucial factor. It allows the listener to stay focused on the haphazard exploits of our hero. who bounces from goofy situation to goofy situation and comes out on the wrong end of every one of them. The refrain is a brilliant way of expressing this guy’s malaise, because you know you’re in bad shape when even your blues feel out of place.

4. “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)”- On an album full of excellent instrumental contributions, it’s hard to top the work of pianist Paul Griffin here. His thrilling playing captures the lyrics’ fascinating mixture of resignation and anguish, as the narrator tries to make sense of how he coughed up this valuable relationship. Dylan plays it cool often on Blonde On Blonde, but his vocals here are all-out emotional on what proves to be one of the best mid-tempo ballads of his career.

3. “Just Like A Woman”- The music flutters about like an elusive butterfly, elegantly rising and falling before soaring off into the furthest reaches with Dylan’s final harmonica solo. The lyrics are part salute and part putdown, but, seeing as how the narrator is the one coming from the position of weakness throughout, the girl/woman can likely withstand whatever he dishes out. The final scene of the guy anticipating a bittersweet future meeting between the ex-lovers is a real heartbreaker.

2. “Visions Of Johanna”- There are just so many ways to admire this song. The music is beautifully-restrained (much love to Joe South’s tender bassline) and cleverly-structured, with Dylan’s harmonica moan serving the purpose of putting in bold-face the emotions quietly suggested by the band. The lyrics are just stunning, a series of escapades that take Bob’s surreality to more cutting levels than ever before; the narrator can’t laugh this stuff this off. That’s because he is separated from Johanna, and that’s what makes “Visions Of Johanna” one of Dylan’s ultimate love songs. After all, if Johanna can make the netherworld inhabited by the narrator bearable, she must be something else.

1. “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”- Dylan coaxes one of the most striking performances of any rock ballad in history from the band, with Kenny Buttrey’s high-hat brilliance keeping the whole thing afloat for all 11-plus minutes as the song stirringly surges and recedes. The object of Bob’s affection is honored with some of his most beautiful poetry, but she is also humanized by the imperfections that he describes. What ultimately separates her is her indomitable nature, which none of the other suitors with questionable motives who darken her door can pierce. Dylan, meanwhile, stands out there still with his Arabian drum, waiting for her signal to enter. What a way to close out the album and the electric period.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238

 

Advertisements

13 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Blonde On Blonde by Bob Dylan”

  1. Baggy says:

    Hi CK,..me again!! decided not to cavilll about the stars this time, but to applaud and re-endorse your appreciation of Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. The po-faced critics seems to have a problem with this song, and there is a prevailing view that Bob over-stretched himself amongst those who are more comfortable with protest Bob, surreal Bob, identiity Bob etc …but Bob the romantic poet really did “stop time” with this song. Immense and beautiful in equal measure.

  2. AndyF says:

    Well call me a po-faced critic but I simply can not wrap my head around Sad Eyed Lady rated higher than Johanna. I tried, I really did. I even listend to them one after the other and there simply is no comparison. One is high art and the other is, well, not.
    As for the album itself, I have always rated it lower than the two that prededed it as well as lower than Freewheelin’ and Blood on the Tracks. If BIABH=Rubber Soul and H61R=Revolver, then BOB certainly is reminiscent of Sgt Pepper. Highly regarded but simply does not hold up song by song to their predecessors. And just to keep the comparison going, both BOB and Pepper contain their respective creators’ best song (Visions of Johanna and A Day in the Life). It’s the filler that downgrades the albums. There is hardly any filler on BIABH or H61R (or Rubber Soul or Revolver for that matter) but the same can’t be said for BOB. I know when people said the White Album should have been edited down to a single classic LP Paul famously said, lay off, it’s the bloody Beatles’ White Album, but I think the same thing with regard to BOB. To paraphrase the clueless Emperor in Amadeus, too many songs. I know, I’m clueless, but there you have it.

    • Shabtai says:

      Hi Andi

      The comparison between Dylan and the Beatles amazes me.
      It is like comparing Joyce ( Ulysses) to Tolkein ( Lord of rings).
      To claim that Revolver and Rubber Soul to Dylan classics, and that those Beatles records do not have “fillers” is outrageous.
      Just consider “masterpieces” like – Yellow Submarine” , or Michelle, or” Here There” or “Run for life”, or “I am only sleeping ” .
      Really bad teen age girls pop staff.
      Both those Beatles records have 2 to three minutes songs, with very simplistic one-dimensional to childish lyrics, many of them with kitschy sweet tunes by McCartney, that causes those songs to age badly and totally fail the test of time.
      The only songs from those records that IMO may be considered above average
      Pop songs today ( again with no comparison to Dylan classics) are ” For no one” , “Eleanor Rigby” ,and “In my life” and “Norwegian wood” .
      The later written with a clear Dylan influence if not stolen from him ( according to Al Kooper ) .

      • countdownkid says:

        I’m with Andy on this one. I think what it comes down to, if I have to put it artlessly, is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The instrumental side of Dylan’s music, even at its very best in the electric period, has a hard time keeping up with that of The Beatles, which really is wondrous in the Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper period.

        I think another way to think about it is to use an anecdote that I heard Bruce Springsteen give about when he was growing up and an aspiring musician. When he watched the Beatles, he thought they were perfection, so there was no sense in him trying to be like them because it couldn’t be done. That’s why he gravitated to the Stones, because they more relatable to him as an aspiring musician.

        I think about that as, in some ways, the dichotomy between Bob and The Beatles. The Beatles’ music was this ideal that really, beyond our best selves, while Dylan’s music was realer somehow because of its grittiness and the humanity of his vocals.

        When I hear the Beatles’ music, I don’t hear the simplicity you perceive, even when the lyrics might be basic. I hear vocals and instruments, words and notes, that seem to lock in with each other so as to seem inevitable, and that mid-60’s period is the apotheosis of that. I think about songs like “Nowhere Man” or “You Won’t See Me” and there’s not an ounce of flab on them, and they have a ton of songs like that just in that period alone.

        Probably a long-winded answer, but that’s my two cents on the Beatles vs. Dylan debate. Equally great, but different animals.

      • AndyF says:

        Of all the things in my life I never thought I would have to defend, my love of the Beatles is just about at the top of the list.

    • countdownkid says:

      I like the Beatles and Dylan comparison. And I will say that the margin between the best Dylan songs is razor-thin. The best are all pretty much perfection; in my opinion, “Sad-Eyed” is maybe more perfect than “Visions,” if that makes any sense.

      I’m actually working on an e-book about the Beatles greatest albums, so you’ll have to check that out and see if your favorites line up with my mine.

      • Shabtai says:

        Hi Kid

        I also like the comparison and the debate.
        But I think that you and Andi and many other Beatles admirers , are motivated by emotion nostalgia and yes love which makes the debate very difficult.
        I admit that relative to the 60’s the Beatles were refreshing .
        And also the orchestral arrangements and instrumentation ( done by Martin) , were revolutionary for the time.
        My point is that the poetic power, imagery, mystery , symbolism, lyrics complexity and sophistication , range of emotions, subtlety and ambiguity , of Dylan’s work are on a complete another level than the Beatles.
        The bottom line is that Dylan work is ( at its best) art of the highest level, while the Beatles wrote ( at their best) nice pop songs.

  3. Leggy Mountbatten says:

    I appreciate that you recognize that “Sooner or Later” is a great song – one of the most overlooked in the Dylan catalog.

  4. Kross says:

    You choose the the top five right. Maybe I’d have a different order but those would be the top 5 songs.

  5. rw says:

    an album that would be a career “best of” list for many very competent song writer

    rw

  6. Baggy says:

    I’m still struggling with the “Beatles just wrote nice tunes” line…isn’t that what they said about Mozart ?

    It doesn’t detract from Bob achievements to recognise that the Beatles delivered a joy in their music which barely anyone else has come close to in 50 years. If we are talking analogies then I don’t think we are comparing Joyce and Tolkein here, more like T S Eliot and Mozart.

    Another of my favourite sites is Steve Hoffman’s music forum where some posters launched a fatuous attempt to compare CSNY to the Beatles ; well you can try….


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s