Album Review

Bob Dylan's 'Blood on the Tracks' at 40: Classic Track-by-Track Album Review

If Bob Dylan's 15th studio album must fit in a box, it's his confessional '70s-singer-songwriter record. Released on January 17, 1975 -- 40 years ago today -- Blood on the Tracks landed amid the dissolution of Dylan's marriage to his first wife, Sara, and with its sad, strummy songs about love gone awry, it has all the hallmarks of classic breakup album.

Here's the problem with that: Dylan has never been a confessional singer-songwriter, and even when he's writing about himself, there's the question of which "himself" he's being. The rascally Minnesotan born Robert Zimmerman has been playing characters since he came on the scene in the '60s, and his peerless songwriting hinges on allegory, metaphor, and misdirection. His catalog is a feast of breadcrumbs meant to throw you off the trail.

Blood on the Tracks teases with approachability. The emotion is so raw, so present, and yet it's safe to say no one really knows what Dylan is singing about.

His son Jakob, leader of the Wallflowers, believes the album is "about my parents," as one-time manager Andrew Slater told the New York Times, while papa Bob insists the lyrics are based on the short stories of Anton Chekov. Another influence was artist Norman Raeben, whose 1974 painting tutorials taught Dylan to "put my mind and my hand and my eye together, in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt," as he told writer Jonathan Cott.

Whatever the truth is, there are certain indisputable facts. Blood on the Tracks marked Dylan's return to Columbia Records after two albums on Asylum, and it reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200, leading many critics to call it a comeback -- not his first and certainly not his last. Also, the album comprises recordings made at two sessions: one in New York City with studio pros assembled by engineer Phil Ramone and a second in Minneapolis organized at the last minute by Bob's brother David.

A mini version of the cult devoted to Bob and the Band's storied Basement Tapes surrounds Blood on the Tracks, and four decades later, hardcore Dylanheads debate which versions, NYC or Minneapolis, are superior. One thing most folks agree on is that Blood on the Tracks is a special entry in Bob's canon. Whether inspired by an impending divorce or the work of a Russian dramatist, these 10 songs carry a lot of hurt. There's also humor, regret, anger, tenderness, and even a Wild West potboiler -- all accompanied by some of the prettiest music Dylan has put to tape.

"Simple Twist of Fate": Most hear this as a john pining for a prostitute, and the lines about the "strange hotel" with the "beat-up shade" and the woman's retreat to "the waterfront docks" lend credence to such a reading. Whether it was illicit or innocent, the relationship has thrown Dylan's subject for a loop, and he sings truehearted over jingling acoustic chords and warm harmonica that play down the carnality of the rendezvous. The resignation of the final two lines -- "She was born in spring, but I was born too late / Blame it on a simple twist of fate" -- hark back to "Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)," maybe the best song Dylan has written about the disappointment of an affair ending prematurely.

"You're a Big Girl Now": Following two fairly abstract tunes, Dylan scales back the language for this lover's lament. Brittle and beautiful, the twin acoustic guitars twist around each other, making like that corkscrew Dylan says is piercing his heart. Elsewhere, he's even more clichéd, rhyming "short and sweet" with "swept me off-a my feet," comparing time to a jet plane, and even quoting an idiom: "What's the sense of changing horses in midstream?" You know he's busted up when he can't manage an original metaphor. The harmonica solo at 3:50 describes the situation much better than Dylan does.

"Idiot Wind": Still wounded, Dylan finally goes on the offensive. He's been slandered and cheated, and even his lady doesn't know who he is. The rolling acoustic push -- helped along with some "Rolling Stone"-style organ -- is similar to that of "Tangled Up in Blue," only here, Bob's seeing red. He first blasts his ex for dishing out such pain and ultimately indicts himself for sitting at the table. He's an idiot, too, but before he admits it, he spits about "the hurt I suffered" with proto-punkish anger.

"You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go": The high harp and strolling bass signal new morning after the dark night of "Idiot Wind," even if Dylan's amorous pursuits remain doomed. He's awestruck by this love he's about to lose, and in the fourth verse, he paints himself into a happy little nature scene the sun's about to set on.

"Meet Me in the Morning": The blues are great for shrugging off pain, and that's what Dylan does on this lowdown jam. The music and lyrics again have a light feel, even as Bob is mired in darkness, nursing barbed-wire cuts and outrunning hounds to woe the woman who's left him. The niftiest bit of wordplay is at the end, when he compares his heart to the sun and the sun to a sinking ship.

"Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts": This nine-minute country-folk yarn is a good reminder of why none of the other songs on this album should be taken as straight autobiography. There's probably some Dylan in the Jack of Hearts, the cunning bank robber at the heart of this story, but the fun here is trying to figure out what actually goes down. Is it Rosemary that kills Big Jim? Does Jack get away, disguised as a monk? Was Jack really Lily in drag the whole time? The plot isn't a whole lot woollier than the one in "Tangled Up In Blue," but the Old West setting lets Dylan throw on a hat and boots and enjoy a moment of comic relief before plunging back into the malaise.

"If You See Her, Say Hello": Dylan's Minneapolis crew does something like it did on "You're a Big Girl Now," intertwining acoustic guitars in mysterious ways deserving of close listening. Same goes for Dylan's lyrics, which first present him as a romantic martyr ("She may think that I've forgotten her / Don't tell her it isn't so") and ultimately as a hopeless case not ready to quit ("tell her she can look me up if she's got the time"). He suggests he's either "too sensitive" or "getting soft" -- things rarely said about the real Bob.

"Shelter From the Storm": Tony Brown's bass moves like restless kitten over Dylan's breezy three chords and bible-grade lyrics about blowing his chances with a woman who might have saved him. The imagery gets pretty savage -- he's "hunted like a crocodile" in the fourth verse -- but the steady strumming, chin-up delivery, and final verse reveal a narrator who, like the guy in "Idiot Wind," isn't too far gone to realize his own culpability. Too bad for him.

"Buckets of Rain": This may be the truest representation of Dylan on the album. Meet Bob the song-and-dance man; he's folky, hokey, gleeful and glum, swinging his feet as he sits on a porch swing, waxing philosophical. "Life is sad, life is a bust / All you can do is do what you must."