CK Retro Review: Blood On The Tracks by Bob Dylan

With 1975’s Blood On The Tracks, Bob Dylan shoved it in the craw of anyone who doubted that he could return to his mid-60’s peak. He somehow juggled recordings done with studio pros in New York with another batch completed with an ad hoc group thrown together by his brother in Minnesota, resulting in his most thematically cohesive and profoundly cutting album ever, a treatise on the deterioration of love in all “its ragin’ glory.” Here is a song-by-song review.

THREE STARS

10. “Buckets Of Rain”- In its context, it is the perfect album-closer, Dylan ending up an album full of recriminations and regret with a soft-hearted promise of devotion no matter what. On its own, it’s still fine, even if it pales a bit in comparison with the monumental stuff preceding it.

FOUR STARS

9. “Meet Me In The Morning”- Dylan’s narrator is hoping against hope that his lover will meet him at “56th and Wabasha,” but his tenor throughout the song suggests that he’s still out there waiting. This song is bluesy and funky, and, on an album largely known for the lyrics, it’s probably got the most going for it musically.

8. “Shelter From The Storm”- Dylan’s songwriting pen was so hot at this time that he left the similar and arguably superior “Up To Me” off the album in favor of this one and still ended up with a classic track. Proving that he could beat the sensitive singer-songwriters at their own game, Dylan rambles over a lovely blend of acoustic guitar and bass and follows a relationship up to its peak before tracing its unfortunate backslide.

7. “You’re A Big Girl Now”- Bob’s vocals are wonderful here, with every anguished cry seeming just a little bit more painful. The recording is delicate and bruised, mirroring the narrator, who wavers between letting the girl go and trying to find his way back to her, even when she’s “in somebody’s room.” The closing harmonica solo tries to wash away the pain, but the relationship purgatory in which our hero finds himself is far too unforgiving for that.

FIVE STARS

6. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”- Even the song that gives off the sunniest vibes on the album betrays its unhappy ending in the title. As great as this affair was, the protagonist knows it’s doomed to end. Before that occurs, Dylan celebrates it in simple and moving language, so that the song seems tossed off even as he’s comparing the relationship to one of doomed poets or rhyming Ashtabula with “Honolula.” His parting words (“But I’ll see you in the sky above/In the tall grass, in the ones I love”) are among the sweetest he ever wrote.

5. “If You See Her, Say Hello”- Bob slowed the tempo down and filled out the recording when he re-recorded this in Minnesota. Those changes amp up the sorrow in this song about learning to live in the aftermath of a damaging breakup. The narrator tries to play it cool as he chats up a mutual acquaintance of his ex, but his emotions keep bubbling to the surface. His final wish for her to look him up is a real heartbreaker, because we the listeners know from the desperation in Bob’s voice that the chances of reunion are nil.

4. “Simple Twist Of Fate”- The ingenuity of Dylan’s creation here is startling. Much of the song is devoted to a chance meeting between a lonely stranger and a woman who humors him and moves on into the night. Bob fills out just enough of the story’s details, but, like a great short story writer, makes sure the devastating emotions can be felt. In the final verse, the narrator breaks down the fourth wall and tells briefly of his own bit of romantic disaster, subtly linking himself with the protagonist in the process and laying bare the depth of his delusion.

3. “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack of Hearts”- It may take you a while to figure out who did what to whom, but the song is an enjoyable hoedown even when the story seems murky. Once it becomes clear, you’re free to marvel at Dylan’s brilliance. As an Old West-style suspense story, it’s unbeatable. Yet it cuts deeper than that, as Bob creates well-rounded characters in Lily and Rosemary who lean on the Jack to give them the courage to make impossible choices in the demise of Big Jim. Everybody ends up with scars or worse except for The Jack of Hearts, who scuttles away to pull the whole thing off again in another unsuspecting town.

2. “Tangled Up In Blue”- Not only is it the perfect table-setter for the album, but it is a towering achievement all on its own, a skewed portrait of a tumultuous relationship painted by a narrator whose painful memories come at him altered and all out of sequence as he tries to sleep it all off. At the core of this fascinating tableau is a deep, undying love and an unquenchable desire to get back to the girl and get it right the next time around, even if the pursuit takes him into the next life. All that, and a colossal harmonica solo as the capper.

1. “Idiot Wind”- First of all, it may be the greatest vocal performance Dylan has ever delivered, raging way beyond good taste into red-line emotional levels. That’s only fitting, because the lyrics go into some pretty dark places as well, as Bob rails against those who misunderstand him. The press takes a glancing blow, but most of his bile is reserved for the woman who has let him down. Had it just been an angry rant, “Idiot Wind” would still have been great if a bit one-note. When the narrator admits his own culpability in the closing moments, confessing that he’s an idiot too, it humanizes him and makes us feel the pain and regret along with the anger and bitterness. It’s probably the best and most accurate song about fractured love ever written.

(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

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11 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Blood On The Tracks by Bob Dylan”

  1. Baggy says:

    What a fantastic track list. Truth is there are arguably 9 five star songs on this album – both Shelter From The Storm and You’re a Big Girl Now have all-time great lyrics – “I’m living in a foreign country , but I’m bound to cross the line, beauty walks a razor’s edge….”. just awesome.

    When this was first released , we knew it was very good, but it took a while to realise how good. Songs like Idiot Wind and Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts are so immense they take a time to assimilate. I’m glad to see your high regard for Lily,Rosemary which gets dismissed in some quarters.

  2. jzsnake says:

    Shelter From The Storm has always been one of my favorites. Oh well.

  3. Leggy Mountbatten says:

    Lily is a bore after the first listen. “Shelter” is far, far better. “She walked up to be so gracefully, and took my crown of thorns”. That about says it all.

  4. Jacek says:

    “It’s probably the best and most accurate song about fractured love ever written.” I might give the edge to Abandoned Love myself, but certainly Idiot Wind is more thorough, especially if you take into account the New York version(s). By the way, Kid, what’s your take on the 1984 arrangement & rewrite of Tangled?

  5. Shabtai says:

    Hi CK

    Like few have commented both “Shelter from The storm” and ” You are a Big Girl” are top 5 stars.
    IMO both are much superior to – “You’re Gonna Make Me lonesome” and ” If You See Her”. But at the end it is a matter of taste.
    It looks to me that you are dealing with the songs ranking like teachers who are spreading the student’s grades over a Gaussian curve.
    In Dylan case especially BOTT songs, you can give all the songs the highest ranking.

    • Jacek says:

      No way. Kid is just being honest about the fact that even on one of his favorite Bob albums, some songs are considerably better than others, or stand out more. He’s clear about even the lesser songs fulfilling important roles—Buckets of Rain being a perfect closer, Meet Me in the Morning being the best musically—but he does admit they exist! I haven’t yet heard a Bob Dylan album that’s all 5-star songs/recordings.

      • Shabtai says:

        Hi Jacek

        Let’s start with what we tend to forget, that the whole game or business of ranking and classifying the work of a genius like Dylan is pretentious and problematic.|
        Second, if we agree that both “Shelter from The storm” and ” You are a Big Girl” are “5 stars” there are not many songs left out of the top category.

    • countdownkid says:

      I love this album with all my heart, but I don’t think all its songs are five-star worthy. I’m not sure you would even want that, although it would be an interesting experiment. There are peaks and valleys even in Dylan’s best collections, although the valleys don’t go very low and the peaks really skyrocket.

      I do thank you for associating my work with something as complex as a Gaussian curve.

      • Jacek says:

        Only one album I know has what I would consider all five-star songs—Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here—but that’s not exactly fair when there are only five tracks, two of which are twelve minutes plus and none shorter than five.

      • countdownkid says:

        I was trying to think myself about the all five-star albums. Wish You Were Here is a close one, although “Welcome To The Machine” is maybe a tad too grumpy in my opinion to be a five-star song, but the others would certainly qualify. You could make an argument that Springsteen’s Born To Run goes 6-for-8.


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