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.

Lloyd Cole and the Commotions – 1984-1989

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

I came to this backwards, having first learned of Lloyd Cole as a solo artist, whose work I didn’t find particularly special. I think I got this roughly in the same period as Rattlesnakes (finding either was not easy), and I am glad I did. I definitely prefer Cole from his early days, though I would be willing to relisten to some of the solo stuff. Cole has worked with Robert Quine (Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Lou Reed, Matthew Sweet) and Fred Maher (Lou Reed, Matthew Sweet, Scritti Politi, Luna). Most of the Commotions ended up playing with Cole on his solo albums. Bassist Lawrence Donegan went on to become a journalist and author, including the golf journalist for The Guardian. As it turns out, Cole is reportedly an accomplished golfer, having grown up on the Glasgow Golf Club, where both his parents worked.

What I Think of This Album

Lloyd Cole is pretentious as fuck. Fortunately, he has at least three things going for him to balance things out:  his songs are incredibly tuneful; he has the benefit of a skilled band, particularly guitarist Neil Clark; and he seems to traffic much more in irony than earnestness (though this could just be my own wishful thinking).

Cole and his band released three albums from 1984-1987, and this compilation democratically selects four tracks from each, with the bonus of B-sides “You Will Never Be No Good” and “Her Last Fling.”

I’ve already addressed the Rattlesnakes tracks in that post. The reward is that the others are basically just as good. The Easy Pieces tracks are more keyboard-and-strings heavy and definitely glossier than the earlier material, but the songwriting and Cole’s performances are excellent. The melody of “Brand New Friend” equals anything on Rattlesnakes, and while the faux-gospel backing vocals are distracting, the fact remains that this is a great song.

Similarly, the tune in “Cut Me Down” is wonderful, and Clark does a fine job with the chiming guitar part. And “Lost Weekend” is brilliant, marrying lyrics that border on self-pity to a sardonic delivery and lively melody, with a stellar jangly guitar line from Clark. This song does seem to borrow quite a bit from Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.”

There is a delicate grace to “Mr. Malcontent,” with a fine vocal from Cole (though the keyboard intro is def weird). “My Bag” hearkens back to the guitar-dominant sound of the debut, though with a funky-soul edge (don’t worry, it works). “Jennifer She Said” has a great chorus and lush strings.

Gary Barnacle (the Clash) played brass on Easy Pieces, produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. Meanwhile, Ian Stanley of Tears for Fears produced the Mainstream songs.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Lost Weekend” is pretty funny and sounds great.

Release Date

June, 1989

The Cover Art

Some of this works, some of it doesn’t. I dig the ribbon and the small font. The shot is nice, too, and while the colors are fine, I think the whole thing is too washed out. This makes me think of the Go-Betweens song “Draining the Pool for You.”

Lloyd Cole and the Commotions – Rattlesnakes

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I bought this album twice. I figured I could get by with a Best of and sold my copy of the debut. The second time, I ended up with the West German release. The West German release will not play straight through; it pauses at the conclusion of each track and you have to push a button on the remote or your CD player to skip to the next track. Very annoying, West Germany. If you can’t properly manufacture CDs, how could you expect to keep up with the Stasi? Anyway, this was Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ debut, coming out of Scotland in 1984.

What I Think of This Album

Lloyd Cole either:  a) got beat up a lot; b) charmed the underwear off his romantic conquests; c) both a) and b); or d) is simply adopting the persona of c). I tend to vote d). Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I detect a sly wink behind all these ridiculous songs. And they are completely absurd. Cole comes across like the most annoying intellectual post-grad ever, oh so casually referencing Norman Mailer, Simone de Beauvoir, Truman Capote, and the New York Times; giving a nod to film critic Renata Adler; quoting Joan Didion; and rhyming “Eve Marie Saint” with On the Waterfront. Also, “She’s got cheekbones like geometry” is not the impressive lyric Cole thinks it is. All of this is fully deserving of a punch in the face. Yet Cole still comes across a smooth operator, with cool detachment and an appealing, rich voice. And the excellent guitar work of Neil Clark is a huge plus.

“Perfect Skin” is like Dylan backed by Richard Lloyd playing the Byrds, and trying to seduce every woman on campus at once. The soul-ish “Speedboat” is odd and entrancing, with a heavy keyboard presence. This song name-checks Leonard Cohen. Cole manages to make the string-drenched title track not insufferable, against all odds.

“Down On Mission Street” is somber and mysterious, with a vaguely Eastern melody in places. One thing the West Germans got very right was including the extended version of “Forest Fire,” which provides you with valuable extra seconds of Clark’s incandescent concluding solo. Cole approaches sincerity on the sweet “Charlotte Street,” with great jangle courtesy of Clark. Dylan is once again the touchstone on the folk/country “2cv,” which might as well have been a Nashville Skyline track. The country tack is further pursued on the sprightly “Four Flights Up.”

An insistent bass pushes against the silk curtains that the string section drapes over the stately “Patience,” in which Cole effectively grows more desperate (though the near-falsetto is not awesome) before remembering the title of the song and pulling back again. “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?” is a fucking classic, with a deadpan delivery from Cole and nimble picking by Clark; the answer song “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken” by Camera Obscura is a necessary listen.

The West Germans were kind enough to tack on four extra tracks, all B-sides to the singles from the album. Clark and bassist Lawrence Donegan carry the tuneful “Sweetness.” There is little to like about “Andy’s Babies,” and “The Sea and the Sand” could’ve been something more than it is. “You Will Never Be No Good” is a decent song, with a bassline that reminds me of Echo and the Bunnymen and some cool pyrotechnics from Clark.

This was a fairly democratic affair, with the songwriting being split between Cole, and Cole collaborating with each of Clark, Donegan, and keyboardist Blair Cowan.

The Best Thing About This Album

I am going to give Neil Clark’s underrated guitar playing the nod here.

Release Date

October, 1984

The Cover Art

This is a photograph by Richard Farber. I find it a bit morose. The text is also difficult to read.

Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out of This Country

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

I’m a big fan of bands referencing other bands in their songs. Not like when Pavement did it in “Range Life” or Edwyn Collins in “North of Heaven“ or Skynyrd in “Sweet Home Alabama” – taking shots at other artists in a song is not cool. I mean when an artist pays tribute to another, through their shared medium. Beulah did this with the Magnetic Fields (as discussed in that post). So props to Camera Obscura for calling back to Lloyd Cole’s 1984 song “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken” some 22 years later. 

What I Think of This Album

On Camera Obscura’s third album, they consolidate their sound, in part due to the departure of drummer/vocalist John Henderson. Now the band is truly Tracyanne Campbell’s, and her tales of regret, longing, and sadness have never sounded sweeter. While not lyrically upbeat, there is a bit more color and life to this release than on Underachievers.

Classic response song “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken” skips along, with a heavy organ presence and swelling strings (arranged by Björn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn, and John). The organ again dominates on the lachrymose “Tears for Affairs,” which has to be a pun; the percussion on this bossa nova track is divine. “Came Back Margaret” is a peppy, string-driven song (with a nice handclap interlude) to an ex’s ex, driving home the point that no one is happy.

Campbell uses the music of “Dory Previn” to get over heartbreak, finding solace in “turn[ing] you up to eleven for the band’s ears to bleed.” An accordion colors the knowing waltz of  “The False Contender.” The title track is a glorious mix of nimble guitar, robust strings, and forceful drumming, while Campbell spins lines like “I drowned my sorrows and slept around / When not in body at least in mind” and “”We’ll find a cathedral city / You can convince me I’m pretty.”

The weepy ballad “Country Mile” is perhaps a tad long, but even so, Campbell’s voice is a revelation. She expertly draws you in and charms you with her phrasing, tone, and modulated emotion. This is someone who knows how to ask for a hug. The band legitimately rocks out on the charging “If Looks Could Kill,” which must be great as a live number. Also notable is the bouncy, self-aware “I Need All the Friends I Can Get.” Finally, a lovely trumpet gilds the rolling “Razzle Dazzle Rose.”

There is a heavy Scandinavian presence on this album, produced by Jari Haapalainen and featuring several Nordic session players, as well as guest vocals by Victoria Bergsman of the Concretes (who is also credited with giving the entire band haircuts). Among the people the band thanks are Francis MacDonald (Teenage Fanclub) and Stephen Pastel (the Pastels).

The Best Thing About This Album

Just try and resist “Let’s Get Out of This Country” – I dare you.

Release Date

June, 2006

The Cover Art

This wallpaper makes me want to kill myself – which is probably exactly what the cover model is thinking. Everything about this art depresses me (I’m not even sure what that mess on the right margin is), and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the point.

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