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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Bob Dylan Countdown #122: “Changing Of The Guards”

There are a few theories I have about why Street Legal, an album which contains five great songs out of nine total, a damn good batting average even for Dylan, is often maligned by critics. First of all, there isn’t any hook to the album. Blood On The Tracks was the divorce album, Desire was the epics album, and Street Legal, well, it’s more like just a collection of songs. It is indeed a bumpy ride of highs and lows, but those highs are stratospheric.

I also have read in multiple sources that the sound was a bit muddled in the original release. I was only six years old upon the original release in 1978, at which point the only music I had in my collection was a Barry Manilow 8-track. (Don’t judge.) I bought Street Legal on Super Audio CD (remember those?) along with a bunch of Dylan’s other albums to fill out my collection about 10 years ago, and the sound is great. This song in particular, featuring the sax work of Steve Douglas and Dylan’s barking of the lyrics, really jumps.

My point is that, since the album gets a bad rap, some of the songs get dragged down with it. Which is a shame with “Changing Of The Guards,” a pretty fine piece of work. I’m not going to presume that I understand everything going on here, but the thing I like the most about the song is the feeling like there is something at stake.

What I mean by that is, if you can pick through all of the ornate imager, shifting perspectives, and fantastical settings, each of the characters that veer in and out of the song seem to be at a personal precipice, some turning point from which their lives can pivot in any one of several directions. In most cases, they are left at this point by Dylan, leaving us hanging until the next character is introduced.

The penultimate verse is a standout, the point at which all of these underlying stories coalesce in a statement of purpose and prophecy. A character addresses a group of onlookers and says that his days of humoring them are over, because the times are about to a-change:  “But Eden is burning, better get ready for elimination/Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards” The apocalyptic feel of these lines highlights the import of the message.

This one man, whether he’s a savior or a fool, has come to the realization that the time is nigh for everyone to look into themselves and decide where they stand, because the status quo cannot sustain through what’s coming. A hint at the proselytizing Dylan would do in the coming years? Perhaps. Whatever it is, it’s a pretty forceful exclamation point on the action that has taken place in the rest of the song. 

If there is one frustration I have with “Changing Of The Guards,” it’s that it didn’t end right there; the last verse always felt anticlimactic after that. It’s a small chink in the armor of this wondrous song, one which deserves a fresh listen from those who might have dismissed based on old judgments.

                                                                                                                                                                                 


Bob Dylan Countdown #125: “You’re A Big Girl Now”

When Bob Dylan famously said that he couldn’t understand how anybody could enjoy Blood On The Tracks because he couldn’t see people “enjoying that kind of pain,” “You’re A Big Girl Now” was probably the song that was foremost on his mind. (“Idiot Wind” likely was a close second.)

The immediacy of that pain is startling to hear, made plain when Dylan yelps out “oh, oh” in the middle of each verse. Those cries are part primal scream, part anguished howl, but they are all unfettered emotion. No hiding behind wordplay or imagery here; it’s all laid bare. As a result, those guttural sounds are some of the most affecting moments on an album full of them.

They also come out of nowhere, rising from the nondescript melodic opening lines of each verse. The sudden outbursts are definitely symptomatic of a “pain that stops and starts” and are the aural equivalents of “a corkscrew to my heart.” As soon as he lets out those yells, a spent Dylan can hardly croak out the remaining lines of each stanza.

The titular phrase is both a statement of fact and a melancholy affirmation of the separation between the narrator and the girl. He’s not necessarily saying that she has grown in terms of maturity, but he is definitely saying that she has grown apart from him. That becomes even clearer when he reveals the final cut:  “I know where I can find you, oh,oh/In somebody’s room.”

“You’re A Big Girl Now” ranks among the rawest musical moments in Dylan’s storied career. He has denied that the song was about his wife Sara, not that he would ever admit to it anyway. As ever, the identities behind the songs are trivial compared with what those songs reveal about the performer and evoke in the listener. It may be hard to hear them, but those cathartic cries convey a lifetime’s worth of emotions without ever forming a word.


Bob Dylan Countdown #156: “Shelter From The Storm”

Although I prefer “Up To Me,” the song that is strikingly similar and also came from the Blood On The Tracks sessions, “Shelter From The Storm” probably was the right choice to include on the album. After all, almost forty years of people absolutely obsessing with that landmark LP proves that Dylan got just the right mix of songs on there, right?

That’s not to say that “Shelter From The Storm” is any slouch when judged on its own. It’s become one of the more popular Dylan songs from that era, getting decent radio airplay and a lot of action in TV and movies. I think that people latch on to the refrain quickly when they hear the song, so it has the ability to make instant impact based on that.

Yet a closer listen reveals that the refrain is used by Dylan as much more than a good hook. He sets the stage for the proceedings with the very first line, “‘Twas in another lifetime,” which immediately lets you know that much of the action will take place in the narrator’s past. What follows are five verses highlighting all the ways in which this guy’s ragged life had been saved by the mercy of the kind woman on whom he is still fixated.

The song sets you up with that beginning to believe that the overall mood will stay upbeat and grateful. That’s when the sixth verse hits you like a needle scratching the record:  “Now there’s a wall between us, somethin’s that’s been lost.”

The sudden change begins the second half of the song (another five verses, to hammer home the fearful symmetry,) told mostly in the present tense. This character’s world is now a bitter place, filled with phrases (“It’s doom alone that counts”) and adjectives (“futile,” “lethal,” “hopeless,” “forlorn”) that speak volumes between the lines.

In that context, the refrain of “‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm” becomes the narrator’s mantra, a spasm of memory which he uses to try to shield himself from the bleak surroundings he now inhabits. The last line he says before repeating the refrain one last time lays bare his regret:  “If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born.”

These are all subtleties that turn up with repeated listens, so, in that sense, “Shelter From The Storm” is a grower. In fact, the laid-back singer-songwriter tone of the recording actually masks the complexity a little too well, which is why the ranking isn’t higher. Even Dylan’s deadpan delivery makes you work a bit. Dig deep into this one, though, and I guarantee you’ll be rewarded.


Bob Dylan Countdown #167: “Meet Me In The Morning”

I’m going to admit it to the world right now. Here I am, trying to be some big-shot Dylan expert, but for the longest time, I thought the first lines to this song were, “Meet me in the morning, 56-cent barbershop.” That’s the thing about Bob’s songs: He’s so unpredictable that even things that you mishear seem to fit perfectly.

I know now that Dylan was singing about “56th and Wabasha,” which might as well be oblivion considering the woeful state of the protagonist in this song. It’s a pretty straight-up blues, featuring some memorable steel guitar work from Buddy Cage, but Dylan’s scorching vocal really brings it to life.

It’s interesting that this was one of the songs on Blood On The Tracks to survive the New York sessions for that album. The common perception of that tumultuous LP is that the New York tracks came out a bit too mellow, causing Dylan to re-record many of them in Minnesota to balance things out with a bit more fire and vigor.

Yet “Meet Me In The Morning” has all of those impulsive emotions right at the surface. The singer’s determination to win the love of the woman in the song, unbowed by snow, hail, or barbed wire, is matched only by the frustration he feels at her reticence. It’s all there in the vocal that highlights this Bob Dylan song where the words don’t mean as much as how he sings them.


Bob Dylan Countdown #183: “Buckets Of Rain”

While I was mesmerized by Blood On The Tracks the very first time I heard it, it took a long time for me to warm up to this track. I thought it was a bit of an anticlimax, coming as it did on the heels of so many colossal songs. I thought this album deserved a closer along the lines of “Desolation Row” or “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” et al. Why go out with a relative whimper?

Yet as the years have passed and I’ve listened to a lot more music, I’ve come to appreciate the fine art of sequencing an album. As someone who has had the opportunity to do album reviews for the last five years, you can trust me when I say that it is a lost art. Dylan, for my money, has always been one of the finest practitioners of it. If we are going to accept that Blood On The Tracks is a concept album, it’s also necessary to view “Buckets Of Rain” as a song that sacrifices a bit of its potential grandeur for the sake of the album as a whole.

By that I mean that Dylan needed a song at the end of the album to serve as the epilogue. Another wordy treatise on tortured love and its acrimonious fallout might have tipped the balance of the album toward being a one-sided harangue rather than a nuanced look at a relationship that has run its course. “Buckets Of Rain” is the even-tempered, after-hours rumination of a man who has been through the fire and now, with the tears drying away, can see it all much clearer.

“Life it sad, life is a bust/All you can do is do what you must,” Dylan sings in the final verse. It’s helpless wisdom, but wisdom nonetheless. There is still fondness there for the one who got away, but there is all also acceptance of the truth, now unavoidable. He ends the album with one more unanswered question:  “I’ll do it for you/Honey, baby, can’t you tell?” Sadly, no amount of wisdom will ever bring that answer to the fore.

When I compiled this list, I judged these songs on their individual merit. For the most part with Dylan, you can do that and be fair to the songs. This song is a notable exception in that it is best appreciated as a part of the whole. On its own, #183 seems about the right spot for “Buckets Of Rain.” In its context, however, it’s damn near perfection.