The Story of Bob Dylan’s Most Personal Album, ‘Blood on the Tracks’
Bob Dylan has said that Blood on the Tracks, his 15th album and one of the greatest of his long career, isn’t personal. But most of the record’s 10 songs belie that claim. In fact, Blood on the Tracks, which was released in January 1975, is one of the most personal albums ever made by anyone.
It’s hard not to read elements of Dylan’s life in the songs. His decade-long marriage to wife Sara had hit major turbulence and was coming to an end in the middle part of the ’70s. And more than anything else it is — a comeback for one of the ’60s’ greatest voices, another chapter in the long career of the greatest singer-songwriter ever, a last-minute change of heart from an artist who’s thrown more than his share of curveballs over the years — Blood on the Tracks is a breakup album, and one of the truest, angriest and, yes, personal ever made.
Dylan started recording the album in September 1974 in New York, less than a year after he reunited with the Band for his first No. 1 album, Planet Waves, and less than seven months after he wrapped an historic tour, his first since 1966, with his old backing group.
After a bumpy start, in which the original band hired to back Dylan on the sessions was replaced by a group of studio musicians, things seemingly went well enough over the 10 days the songs were recorded that Dylan’s record company made up some test pressings of the album and put the mostly acoustic LP on the schedule for release before Christmas 1974.
But after Dylan played the album for his brother, who insisted it needed more electric instruments, he returned to a Minneapolis studio, with session musicians picked by his brother, and re-recorded five of the songs in the days immediately after Christmas.
By mid-January, the album was back on the label’s schedule and, shortly afterward, on store shelves, rush released to make up for missing the big holiday season. It immediately shot to No. 1, Dylan’s second consecutive chart-topper. It didn’t take long for Blood on the Tracks to be recognized as one of Dylan’s best-ever albums and his first real masterpiece since the string of classics he released in the ’60s.
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It’s easy to hear why. Most of the cuts unfold as a cycle of songs about a relationship skidding toward a crash. Dylan doesn’t even bother to disguise his contempt for his own crumbling marriage in the sprawling centerpiece “Idiot Wind”: “Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,” he seethes. “You’re an idiot, babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” “You’re a Big Girl Now” takes a more sentimental approach to the same subject. And so it goes.
Then there’s the album’s lead track and most popular cut, “Tangled Up in Blue,” which Dylan once said took him 10 years to live and two to write. The song’s cubist imagery and winding narrative path keep the breakup tale at the center of it at a distance for the most part. But once you start unraveling the layers, there’s little doubt that something’s been lost in Dylan’s life and most likely unrecoverable. It serves as Blood on the Tracks‘ anchor as much as ‘Idiot Wind’ holds down its center.
Other songs — like the sparse “Shelter From the Storm,” recorded at the September acoustic sessions — dig even deeper into his personal turmoil, even if, at times, the album’s occasional laid-back approach appear to point in another direction. Dylan has maintained for 40 years that fans and critics shouldn’t read too much in his words. He even went so far as to write in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Vol. 1, that the songs were inspired by Anton Chekhov’s short stories. Whatever.
Dylan’s messed with us before. And after. If he claims Blood on the Tracks isn’t a personal account of his deteriorating marriage, so be it. But the words (bitter, sensitive) and music (raging, meditative) say something entirely different. Either way, it’s a landmark record by an artist who refused to stay stuck in the ’60s and to his eternal legend. He was moving on, no matter how you hear it.
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