Friday, November 2, 2012

Middling-Good Dylan Results With The Long But Few Blood On The Tracks

The Good: Some great lyrics, Nice long songs, Some truly great musical stories
The Bad: Musically unimaginative, Moments of voice, SHORT!
The Basics: Bob Dylan provides a solid album with Blood On The Tracks that is well-written, interesting and musically difficult to listen to and enjoy.

So, after reviewing some of Bob Dylan's earliest works and some of his latest albums last week (see the links at the bottom of this review!) I just got in two new-to-me Bob Dylan albums and I have been eagerly listening to them. In a rare listening and reviewing out of order, I have been listening to Dylan's album Blood On The Tracks repeatedly for the last two days before getting to his earlier album Blonde On Blonde. I trust that will not be held against me!

Blood On The Tracks is a ten track, fifty-one minute opus from Bob Dylan which was his fifteenth studio album. This is a pure Bob Dylan work, featuring ten musical stories written and (primarily) performed by him. On this album, he sings his own lyrics and plays the guitar, harmonica, organ and mandolin. It is a musically richer album than many of his early albums and it is clear he has had time to grow and develop as a musical artist from when he released The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.

Blood On The Tracks truly is a storytelling album and Dylan presents stories that range from meeting and re-meeting women ("Tangled Up In Blue"), seduction (the classic "Shelter From The Storm") and loathing someone ("Idiot Wind"). The songs have a storylike quality to them and, in fact, "Lily, Rosemary, and The Jack Of Hearts" is an almost nine minute musical story that is very complete and I swear is how Woody Allen got the idea for Small Time Crooks (reviewed here!)! The storytelling quality serves Dylan well and many of the songs have very memorably lyrics.

Dylan employs a higher level of diction in his songs than most artists and on Blood On The Tracks, and while some of the songs that he presents on this album may not always employ that, he does manage to create some wonderful and unique rhymes while telling a story. So, for example, he is quite poetic with the lines "He hears the ticking of the clocks / And walks along with a parrot that talks, / Hunts her down by the waterfront docks where the sailors all come in. / Maybe she'll pick him out again, how long must he wait / Once more for a simple twist of fate" ("Simple Twist Of Fate"). Dylan creates a strong sense of loneliness and longing in the protagonist that waits for even the chance of finding the woman he wants in that song and the story is melancholy and wonderful.

Dylan has the ability to put unspeakable loneliness into words on tracks like "You're A Big Girl Now" and he is surprisingly mean on "Idiot Wind," a song that makes other "I hate you" type songs seem pale by comparison. On that track, he basically sings about how much of a fool and a liar the subject of the song is. Just as he can be romantic or sing about feeling sad, he is eloquent in tearing apart another person. His lines are pretty brutal with the refrain, "Idiot wind blowing every time you move your teeth / You're an idiot, babe, / It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe" ("Idiot Wind")!

In general, the story-songs are well-written and they emote basic human ideas like love and loss. Blood On The Tracks is the album that has the classic and oft-covered Dylan classics "Tangled Up In Blue" and "Shelter From The Storm." I was surprised how infrequently "Simple Twist Of Fate" was covered, because thematically, it's an impressive song.

Blood On The Tracks is characterized by long songs. Don't get me wrong, I love long songs; I'm one of the few people who still praises the Oasis album Be Here Now (reviewed here!) as their best work! Dylan takes his time developing tracks like "Tangled Up In Blue," "Idiot Wind," and "Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts," the latter of which clocks in at 8:50! Most of the songs are in the mid-4:30s, but Dylan rewards his listeners with some real long songs that truly develop over the course of their airplay.

One of the things that I appreciated quite a bit about many of Bob Dylan's earliest albums was how far from the parodies his vocal performances were. Bob Dylan is a pretty constant source of parodies and he is often characterized and caricatured as a mumbling, incomprehensible singer with a terrible voice. Sadly, on "Blood On Tracks," we hear where those parodies come from. For sure, there are tracks where Dylan has clarity, like "Tangled Up In Blue" and most of "Shelter From The Storm" (though he does mumble his way through much of the opening to that story).

But many of the tracks are the embodiment of the parody of Bob Dylan. One suspects much of the way Dylan got away with being so mean on "Idiot Wind" was that few people could easily understand the lyrics! Moreover, "Buckets Of Rain" is virtually incomprehensible and while the instrumentals sound decent from it, the lyrics close the album with more of a "what was that?" feel than Dylan presumably intended.

What makes the album worth listening to (outside the lyrics) is the instrumentals. Blood On The Tracks is musically richer than many of Dylan's early albums, as evidenced by his taking up the organ and mandolin in addition to singing and playing the guitar and harmonica. On this album, he is accompanied by a bass, an organ and a steel guitar on many of the tracks. This fills out the sound of many of the songs in a way that many of his earlier albums were not.

The thing is, Blood On The Tracks also has some of the most musically unimaginative songs in Dylan's repertoire. For sure, "Tangled Up In Blue" has a recognizable melody, but "Simply Twist Of Fate," for all its storytelling prowess is essentially an atonal musical story. "You're A Big Girl Now" starts out with some deft guitar fingering, but once the singing begins, the melody becomes so ethereal that after listening to this album seven times in a row, I know I would not be able to pick the melody to the song out of a musical line-up!

What lacks a melody is essentially uninteresting to the ear and the pinnacle of this is "If You See Her, Say Hello," a vague ballad that fades from memory almost as soon as the song is begun. Sure, Dylan presents a mildly bluegrass song with "Meet Me In The Morning," but most of the album is slow with lyrics that are vastly more memorable than the instrumentals . . . or the vocals.

Blood On The Tracks is a good album and it is definitely worth listening to for anyone who likes folk rock music. This is a great collection of musical stories. But for those looking for a decent listening experience with a great sound, it's hard to plug this album. One might be better off picking up a book of Dylan lyrics in such a case. I can deal with the sound, but objectively, this is not his best sounding album and it certainly invites the parodies many people object to.

The best track might well be "Shelter From The Storm," the worst is the indistinct "If You See Her, Say Hello."

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
No Direction Home
Love And Theft


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

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