Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bob Dylan's Magnum Opus Blonde On Blonde Seems More Dated Than Masterful.

The Good: Lyrics, Generally richer musical sound than many early albums
The Bad: Singing is terrible, Music is repetitive-sounding and inspires narcolepsy
The Basics: After years of looking forward to Bob Dylan's folk-rock classic Blonde On Blonde, I discovered an album where the lyrics and sound are incongruent.

In my continuing quest to listen to as many of the works of Bob Dylan as I can get my hands on, I cannot think of an album I was more looking forward to listening to than Blonde On Blonde. Virtually every Dylan fan has told me at one point or another that this is his masterpiece, the definitive Dylan work one must listen to to understand his genius. In fact, all I knew about the album other than that was that it had the song "I Want You," a track I frequently argue artist Sophie B. Hawkins reinterpreted as a vastly better track on her debut album Tongues & Tails (reviewed here!).

Even that, I was eager to listen to Blonde On Blonde in a way that I haven't been excited about an album in quite some time. That excitement did not endure through the first listen. Now on my seventh time through the disc, I find myself troubled by how this album could be considered one of his best when earlier works of his have merited more praise (please see the links below for my other Dylan album reviews!).

Blonde On Blonde is a fourteen track album that clocks in at a hefty seventy-three minutes, eight seconds! Originally released as a double album, it now fits nicely onto one c.d. and it is quite purely the vision of Bob Dylan as all of the songs on the album were written by him. As well, Dylan plays guitar, harmonica and piano on the album on various tracks. The addition of the piano to Dylan's personal repertoire marks a new level of musical proficiency over many of his earlier albums where he only sang, played guitar and harmonica. Also notable is the increase in background instruments and vocals surrounding Dylan.

Unlike the stark sound of many of Bob Dylan's earlier albums, Blonde On Blonde finds Dylan creating a very rich musical sound. This is largely a folk-rock album with a strong sense of blues to it. The songs are generally slower, more lyrically musing, and is far less political than some of his albums. Instead, the songs are largely sung stories, musings on relationships and life and interactions. The notable exception to this is "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," Dylan's recognizable song for the refrain, "Everybody let's get stoned," which is a pretty uninspired notion in my book.

The majority of the songs are much more introverted, exploring relationships and the emotions associated with them. He sings of desire ("Visions Of Johanna"), loneliness ("Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again") and loss and rebirth ("4th Time Around"). The songs are generally about how people relate and have Dylan's song protagonists apologizing ("One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)"), pleading ("I Want You") and observing changes ("Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat"). Despite being a long album (which I like quite a bit!), this album is fairly thematically unified.

This album is characterized by powerful images in the lyrics. Indeed, some of the imagery overcomes any sense of literal meaning and Dylan's poetics read extraordinarily well on a literary level. So, for example, lines like "Guilty undertaker sighs / The lonesome organ-grinder cries / The silver saxophones say I / should refuse you / Cracked bells and washed-out horns / Blow into my face with scorn / But it's not that way / I wasn't born to lose you" ("I Want You") are packed with imagery but require some serious analysis to truly understand the levels. Sure, there's the literal level where a desirous lover is sitting watching a band longing for the one they love, but the level of details, alludes to something deeper. Anyone with an English degree could spend days arguing what the lines actually mean.

Virtually all of the songs are that well-written, with lines that are long and dense and can be taken on literal and metaphorical levels. Blonde On Blonde arguably has some of the best lines Dylan ever wrote, especially in terms of his narrative songs. I love Dylan's early works with the political emphasis, but during his transition to more personal and intimate songs or the songs that simply told stories, he lost me some. But who could resist lines like "Mona tried to tell me to stay away from the train line / She said that all the railroad men just drink up your blood like wine / . . . He just smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette" ("Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again")? Dylan has an amazing command of imagery and it is easy to see why he is one of the most popular and prolific songwriters of American history.

But lyrics are only one facet of an album. Were this a book of poetry, I would score it far higher. Why? The lyrics are wonderful, the execution into song is not everything one might like from either a vocal performance or a musical composition. The length is fine, but the problem with this particular Dylan album is that his singing style has radically altered and the instrumentals are largely unimaginative.

I have never been part of the bandwagon that Dylan is a great songwriter but can't sing. There's a huge chunk of musical enthusiasts who love Dylan's lyrics, but think he cannot sing worth the price of one of his c.d.s. I disagree and the proof is in Bob Dylan's early works. It's like people who claim the Bee Gee's can't sing; their early works illustrate well their transition from something of an a cappella group into the disco falsetto sound. Bob Dylan's first albums show that not only can he sing, he has a pretty impressive singing voice. He has style and sound and he is all-around a wonderful singer.

He just doesn't use it on Blonde On Blonde. Dylan does not sing with clarity or the full range of his very desirable voice. Instead, he wheezes out the choruses to "I Want You," mumbles through the lines of "Just Like A Woman" and . On "Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine," he sounds more bored than passionate and he wails and drawls through much of it, gutting any emotional resonance to the lyrics. On several of the tracks, the instrumental accompaniment drowns out his somewhat incomprehensible mumbles.

Moreover, there is a strong sense of musical repetition on the album. Tracks blend together with Dylan mumbling and drawling through many of the tracks with little distinction in his vocal presentation. The sound of the album is brought down by the fact that many of the songs sound like one another.

As far as vocal presentation, there is a pretty sad sense of repetition over the course of this album. "Just Like A Woman" is sung by Dylan in such a way that is frequently sounds just like "Visions Of Johanna." People might miss it because the tempo of the songs is different, but the vocal presentation is disturbingly similar! "Temporary Like Achilles" and "Just Like A Woman" also sound so similar as to be eerie. "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" and "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" sound remarkably alike in their use of both organ and guitar. Indeed, they open using some of the same chords and even note progressions!

My point is, for a supposedly great album, coming from such a prolific singer-songwriter, one would think he could incorporate some musical diversity into his album. That he allows so many of the tracks to sound like one another seems lazy and sloppy. It is almost as if Dylan created amazing lyrics for his songs and figured that would be enough. None of the songs are particularly imaginative as far as the music and sound of them goes.

And before the backlash from the Dylan fans starts (they're about as rabid, I've discovered, as Springsteen fans!), I'll make the case that Dylan sings some of his own songs wrong. "Absolutely Sweet Marie" is about a man waiting, looking for a woman. The narrator is lost, curious and somewhat heartbroken. The song employs upbeat drums that keep a head-pumping dance beat that in no way matches the sentiment or emotions of the lyrics. Nowhere is the disparity between lyrics and sound greater than on "I Want You." Sophie B. Hawkins actually got that song. She took Dylan's lyrics and transformed the song into a testament to desire, longing and the ache that comes with wanting someone who is unattainable. Bob Dylan's version on Blonde On Blonde is an up-tempo hokey-sounding chant that - if one went by sound alone - seems to be celebrating the joy of wanting someone unattainable in the most festive way possible.

In other words, Dylan guts his lyrical magnificence by his presentation. The songs either do not express and complement the lyrics or they repeat the sound of tracks earlier on the album. And "4th Time Around" sound suspiciously like a tune by The Beatles (I'm trying to place it . . .)! Yes, there might be historical significance to Blonde On Blonde (it was his last album before a motorcycle accident he was in, for example), but I am not rating the album based on others' impressions of it or within the context of any history. This is how the album sounds and it says something very different from the lyrics. I am not here as a guardian of Dylan's reputation; as I've stated, I like much of his works!

But this is not one of them. There are better albums by Bob Dylan and there are works where his abilities on the fronts of lyrics, music and vocal quality are displayed with far more proficiency.

The best track is the epic "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands," the low point is the ridiculous-sounding album opener "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35."

For other Bob Dylan reviews, be sure to check out my takes on:
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Another Side Of Bob Dylan
Early Album Boxed Set
Blood On The Tracks
No Direction Home
Love And Theft


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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