Most Dylan acolytes will be aware that there are two versions of this album. The first was recorded in September 1974, at New York’s Columbia Studio, however by the time test pressings were handed out to selected radio stations for promotion in November, Dylan had decided that at least half the songs needed to be redone. And so, with some help from his brother David, on December 27th, Minneapolis’ Sound 80 studio was booked and a swiftly hired group of experienced session musicians were brought in, none of whom Bob had ever met before much less played with. The quiet and reclusive Dylan offered no real instructions as to what he wanted them to play, although the moment they launched into “Idiot Wind”, it was then that the definitive version of Blood On The Tracks was officially born.
Where Dylan had often obscured his personal emotions behind a wall of cryptic verse and metaphorical meanderings, here he comes across at his most direct and honest. Nearly every song on Tracks is deeply infused with intense heartache and bitterness. Vignettes expressed by someone caught in the emotional turmoil of a marriage or relationship gone wrong.
“Tangled Up In Blue” opens the album, and is like no other song Dylan had ever written before. Concerned with two people who once met and separated, before meeting up again some years later, the lyrics are a tender and beautiful narrative based on the concept of love and destiny. The verses switch from first person to third person, to the extent that one is not really sure who is telling the story.
On the acoustic “Simple Twist of Fate” Dylan paints an affectionate and intimate portrait of lost love as well as the all important ‘what might have been’. And when he sings “People tell me it’s a sin/To know and feel too much within/I still believe she was my twin but I lost the ring/She was born in Spring but I was born too late”, I am always moved no end. The romantic “You’re a Big Girl Now” is a soft and sentimental ballad, mind you, nothing can prepare the listener for what’s next, and that next is the visceral “Idiot Wind”, arguably the most acidic of diatribes Dylan has ever composed. Sure, Bob had penned a few astringent verses in his time, but none of those can compare to this, where he doesn’t so much as sing the words, but rather spits them out as a cobra will its venom, and I quote: “Idiot Wind blowing every time you move your mouth/Blowing down the back roads heading south/Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth/You’re an idiot babe/It’s a wonder that you know how to breathe”. Ouch! One thing’s for sure, I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that kind of vitriol, especially if you knew that millions of people would be listening to it on the radio or stereo at home.
“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” is a nod to Dylan’s folk past, only with a more sophisticated approach when compared to his earlier records. It doesn’t do all that much for me, though the sentiment is endearing all the same. Bob clearly has the blues on “Meet Me in the Morning”, nursing his wounds on this cathartic classic. I’m surprised he didn’t ask Eric Clapton to join him on the session. Someone who would have been a perfect fit on a song such as is. The nine minute “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is certainly entertaining, in a western kind of way, before we plunge back into the emotional maelstrom on the affectionate “If You See Her, Say Hello”, where Bob shows his sensitive side, pleading for his true love to come back to him.
The autobiographical “Shelter from the Storm” is what it is, namely a gentle acoustic ballad fraught with intriguing imagery of the sort that harkens back to his early days, while “Buckets of Rain” is quintessential Bob at his best. Dark, depressing, yet uplifting all at once – and a temperate way to end what is by and large a rather tumultuous journey.
Anyone who has been through a major breakup, and had their heart trampled on before being fed to wild animals will no doubt take to this album like a bird to a tree. Mind you, the fact that Dylan was a serial adulterer, and cheated frequently in front of his wife, Sara, means that I find it difficult to sympathise with many of Bob’s emotional aches and pains. Nevertheless, Blood On The Tracks remains his most optimum statement of the ‘70s, perhaps his finest statement ever. It also provided Dylan with a much needed boost not only amongst the critics but more importantly those who bought the records. Thus it would seem that marital meltdown had resurrected his career. Not that it must have been all much fun for Bob, or his wife, Sara, at the time. Personally, after having done some reading over the years, my sympathies lie more with his wife than Bob himself. That he openly womanised in front of her (even kissing his old love Joan Baez on stage one night) couldn’t have helped matters. Nevertheless, there can be no doubting that Blood On The Tracks was and remains a masterpiece of musical outpouring from a man who clearly wanted to express some torn feelings of his own. Marriages may not be perfect, yet neither was Bob Dylan.