Bob Dylan – Blood On the Tracks

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 6)

I had to take a break from reviewing these Dylan albums. The first three were so easy, and then I hit Blonde On Blonde. The repeated playings of that double album were not enjoyable and finally I accepted that I didn’t like it. After that was The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4:  The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert, which at the time led me to conclude that it also did not merit remaining in my collection (the rest of the saga about my journey with that album is in that post). Subsequently, the insubstantial Nashville Skyline; it wasn’t a difficult record but it remains a fundamentally disappointing and somewhat bewildering one. And now Blood On the Tracks, the infamous divorce album. Needless to say, it is likewise not a fun listen, though it is a rewarding one.

What I Think of This Album

Dylan has denied that he wrote this to be his divorce album and rejects any autobiographical interpretation at all; rather, he maintains that he was inspired by his time spent studying under painter Norman Raeben (and has also claimed the songs owe their existence to Anton Chekhov’s short stories). In the same way that its origins are disputed and ever-shifting, the album withholds clarity from the listener, preferring mystery and enigma. If Dylan’s lyrics are often confusing on his 1975 comeback, then the listener is left with the delivery as signpost, and Dylan very clearly communicates his emotions:  bitterness, anger, sorrow, nostalgia, and regret. 

Almost everything about “Shelter From the Storm” is perfect. The guitar strums are like a warm blanket, the melody is first rate, and Dylan’s delivery is heartfelt and gentle. He reaches back to his ’60s work to employ slightly more impressionistic, fantastical imagery than on the rest of the album, even as it’s clear that this is another (gorgeous) song of heartbreak.

“Idiot Wind” is pretty goddamn impressive, even as the unmitigated spite of the lyrics is troubling. In that way, it is also a callback to Dylan’s earlier, angry songs from the ‘60s. It also contains a rare moment of humor – perhaps the only one on the album – when he deadpans “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.

Dylan sounds particularly invested on the sorrowful, slightly defensive “Simple Twist of Fate,” a gentle number that could’ve fit on Nashville Skyline. The harmonica is well-played. The guitar playing on “You’re a Big Girl Now” is laudable, as is the harmonica. Once again, Dylan’s vulnerability shines through with his emotional delivery and unadorned lyrics. Lloyd Cole and the Go-Betweens have covered this track. These two songs arguably make up the heart of this album. If you want to add a third chamber to that heart, then it would take the form of “If You See Her, Say Hello,” which is no less self-lacerating for being direct and pretty.

I once read an interview with Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs (I am 99% sure it was him) in which he claimed that every true Dylan fan hated “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” Fuck Greg Dulli. I’m not going to go so far as to claim it’s a great song, but it is a very good tune and bears the distinction of being the most upbeat, melodic one on the album. There is no denying Dylan’s skill in grabbing your attention with this Wild West tale of bank robbery, murder, infidelity, a diamond mine, and a drunk jurist. And, perhaps because the relatively straightforward plot nonetheless retains some ambiguity, it holds up to repeated listens (unlike, say, “The Gift” by the Velvet Underground). Dylan tricks you into believing that if you listen to the song just one more time, you’ll be able to figure out what’s going on. I also appreciate the offhand reference to suicide, treating it without drama or judgment.

The oddest song is “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” Against a sprightly backing, Dylan sounds almost joyous as he appreciatively reminisces about a relationship that is not yet over. I don’t care for the melody. The bluesy “Meet Me In the Morning” leaves me absolutely cold. If Greg Dulli wants something to complain about, he can have the repetitive, facile “Buckets of Rain.”

I have to say, I find “Tangled Up In Blue” to be marred by Dylan’s vocal affectation. And what’s more, I am not impressed by the shifting time perspective. Sometimes he’s singing in the present, sometimes in the past – big deal. What is the sequence of events? It doesn’t matter to me. Is it one woman he’s singing about or multiple women? I don’t care. More than on any other track, the artifice of Dylan’s narrative exercise overwhelms whatever organic artistry might be present.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Shelter From the Storm”

Release Date

January, 1975

The Cover Art

I intensely hate the purple field on the left. The painting is okay. The design of the title and artist name is a disgrace.

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