Twist & Shout continues its support of the great monthly series, On the Cover, taking place the last Wednesday of every month at the Hi-Dive. For On the Cover, local musicians tackle classic albums that have been an influence on them, performing them in their entirety live and on stage. Check out this month's series in which Adam Goldstein takes on Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and offers some insight as to why he's chosen to perform this masterpiece.
Bob Dylan always distanced himself from the drama, heartbreak and loss that mark every single song on Blood on the Tracks.
In interviews following the release of the record in 1975, Dylan claimed its ten tracks were based on the short stories of Anton Chekhov. Years later, when a radio interviewer asked him about the fact that the album had become one his most beloved among fans, Dylan demurred, insisting, “It's hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying that type of pain, you know?” He added that the tunes weren’t pulled from his personal life, saying he didn’t write “confessional” songs.
For anyone who knows and loves this record, those claims are hard to believe.
Blood on the Tracks stands apart in Dylan’s oeuvre for its immediacy, for its rare glimpse into the heart of an artist who made enigma, distance and mystery such a big part of his creative persona. Beneath the convoluted lyrical twists on “Idiot Wind,” beyond the third-person narrative approach of “Tangled Up and Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate,” under the fatalistic bravado on “Bucket of Rain,” this album offers a portrait of Dylan coming to grips with a gaping emotional wound. And that makes sense, considering that this album came out shortly after his divorce from his wife and the mother of his children, Sara Dylan.
That pain makes for a compelling work of art, one that offers lessons to anyone who’s ever known heartache. Since I started listening to Blood on the Tracks in earnest at the tender age of 14, it’s offered comfort for every failed crush, every derailed relationship and every brutal rejection.
That’s not to say this album is about self-pity. Lyrically and musically, Dylan avoids self-indulgence here in a way he fails to do on any other album. He tracks every stage of a doomed relationship across the record, from the first glimmer of obsession to the final acceptance of letting go. But he does it with lyricism, integrity and insight.
It’s quite a feat, considering the material here came from a messy creative process. Indeed, on hearing the bare-bones songs for the first time, Stephen Stills was not impressed. “He's a good songwriter ... but he's no musician,” Stills observed to Graham Nash.
That’s hardly apparent from this brilliant record.
On the album’s opener, “Tangled Up in Blue,” the tale of a drifter looking to reconnect with an old flame becomes an allegory for much larger truths. Singing over bright major chords and tasteful folk-rock rhythm accompaniment, Dylan ends up purposeful: “Now I’m going back again, I got to get to her somehow,” he promises, before adding, “We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view.”
Those nuggets of wisdom only get more profound. “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,” he bemoans on “Simple Twist of Fate.” On “You’re a Big Girl Now,” he cries, “I’m going out of my mind with a pain that stops and starts / Like a corkscrew to my heart.”
The accusations fly on “Idiot Wind,” before Dylan turns tender on “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” one of the poet’s most haunting and aching romantic tributes. Even the standard blues number “Meet Me in the Morning” includes nuggets of profound wisdom, as does the epic, 15-verse “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.”
The end of the record stands as a career high point for Dylan. The imagery in “Shelter from the Storm” stands among Dylan’s most profound; lines like, “Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine” resonate for those who’ve been caught up in the bleak hopelessness of a rejection. “Buckets of Rain” turns philosophical, with lines like “Life is sad, life is a bust, all you can do is do what you must. You do what you must do and you do it well / I do it for you, honey baby can’t you tell.”
Dylan’s songwriting matches his insights. The song structures are subtle and moving. The guitar work, mostly performed in open E, is crisp; his harmonica playing never veers into overindulgence. Haunting organ lines on “Idiot Wind,” high-register bass on “Shelter from the Storm” and a funky blues band on “Meet Me in the Morning” round out the artist’s voice, strings and harp.
But perhaps more than any other album, Blood on the Tracks is all about Dylan. In peeling back layers and exposing what he usually keeps hidden behind brilliant verse and folk tradition, Dylan offered listeners a peek into the universal.That’s the reason this record still feels poignant after every spin. That’s the reason why, nearly 20 years after I first played it through, I find new insights and deeper pathos in the tunes. That’s the reason why, after I can play this entire record through, I’m ready to listen to it again.