Monday, October 4, 2010

Is 'Blood on the Tracks' Bob Dylan's greatest album?

There is no disputing that Blood on the Tracks deserves to be in the discussion regarding what Bob Dylan's best album is. The big question is whether or not it is the best.

Answering this question is a tricky proposition. Dylan has gone through so many stylistic changes in his career that it seems almost unfair to compare certain albums. For example, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is a whole lot different album than Blonde on Blonde. Both are undeniably great, but it is difficult to compare the two because of their differences.

To reduce this to a cliché, comparing Dylan's music in 1962 to his music in 1966 is like comparing apples to oranges. Each phase of his career represents his development as an artist to the point that he was not the same artist when each phase ended. Dylan is unique in this respect because his career has been so long. As he has grown as a man and an artist, we have seen him change into a 'new Bob Dylan' in each phase.

Therefore, it really is a waste of time and effort when trying to determine which of his albums is the greatest. When it comes to Blood on the Tracks, all we have to do is accept that it is great as we absorb ourselves in it.

When it was released in 1975, it arrived at a time when the leaders of the great musical era of the Sixties were withering on the vine. Dylan had begun the Seventies with a thud with Self-Portrait. In the years that followed, he made excellent but sometimes erratic music (the fragmented New Morning comes to mind). When Blood on the Tracks arrived, it arrived with a jolt.

The album deals with love on lots of different levels. Many believe the inspiration and passion that comes through on the album was because of problems in his marriage. I have always been a little hesitant when people try to pin intimate songs like these to specific events in an artist's life. However, there is no denying that there is both joy and weariness in these songs. Both are common traits when studying what love is and what it is not.

The album begins with the remarkable 'Tangled Up in Blue.' The universal appeal of this song is that it deals with the past, present, and future of love. We all reach a point in our lives where we reflect on past relationships. When we do this, we look at where love has taken us and how it helped bring us to our current point in life. In Dylan's presentation of this, he walks us through the singer's experiences, which had taken him all over the world. Dylan closes the song simply by singing that he is going down the road 'heading for another joint.' In one form or another, we all do the same.

The volcanic 'Idiot Wind' is about romantic failure that borders on the apocalyptic when it comes to its imagery. It is similar to 'Like a Rolling Stone' in that the listener can revel somewhat in the attack on the other party. The venom in which Dylan delivers his vocals drags the listener through the song with uncommon passion. It is hard for the listener not to think of times in their own lives when events were out of control and emotions have been reduced to a howl or scream. The song is great but not for the faint of heart.

'You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go' follows 'Idiot Wind,' and it is an excellent example of sequencing songs. As full of rage as 'Idiot Wind' is, 'You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go' is light and breezy like a pleasant afternoon during springtime. It presents love at its most naïve and playful. It represents the honeymoon phase that most relationships go through and provides a much needed breath of fresh air after the intensity of 'Idiot Wind.'

'Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts' is a long love story drenched in imagery from the Wild West. 'Simple Twist of Fate' is a song of regret. 'You're a Big Girl Now' offers more of the same.

However, one of the most interesting songs considered for Blood on the Tracks is one that did not make the final cut. 'Up to Me' is a remarkable ballad that was eventually released on Biograph in 1985. According to Cameron Crowe's liner notes for Biograph, it was written as a companion piece for 'Shelter from the Storm' that appeared on Blood on the Tracks.

Crowe wrote: "The song also toys with his (Dylan's) own inscrutable persona. 'If we never meet again, baby, remember me,' he sings in the final verse, 'How my lone guitar played sweet for you, that old time melody. And the harmonica around my neck, I blew it for you free. No one else could play that tune. You know it was up to me.'"

Commented Dylan: "I don't think of myself as Bob Dylan. It's like Rimbaud said, 'I is another.'"

As good as Blood on the Tracks is, the inclusion of 'Up to Me' would have taken it to another level. It cried out to be the closing track on the album but turned out to be a lost opportunity. Then again, 'Up to Me' was one of the major reasons Biograph was such a fantastic boxed set.

If nothing else, Blood on the Tracks is a mature record. The songs deal with love in a three-dimensional way. Dylan was in his mid-30s when it was released, and by this age, most of us have seen the pros and cons of what love can bring.

Dylan brought this home in perhaps the most literate way ever presented in rock and roll. The album can best be described as an eruption of emotion and talent. He has not produced another album quite like it, but given the subject matter, it would be tough for any artist to repeat this twice.

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