Tuesday, January 20, 2015

'Blood on the Tracks' Was One of the Best Ever Recorded

I guess I am not going out on a limb when I declare Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks," which was released on this day in 1975, one of the greatest albums ever recorded.

Rolling Stone named it the 16th–best album of all time more than a decade ago and described Dylan's songwriting as "lyrically piercing, gingerly majestic." I guess you could say that or something similar about most of the songs he has written — but if it is going to be said about any of Dylan's albums, "Blood on the Tracks" is the one it should be said about.

Initially, though, critical acclaim for "Blood on the Tracks" was slow in coming. Some critics really liked it; others didn't. Personally, I always liked it.

Not that I'm a critic or anything. I just appreciate good music. And this was really good music.

When the album hit the stores, "Tangled Up in Blue" was played rather frequently on the radio. It was really the only single from the album — although, as always, there were songs that were never hits in the conventional sense — but they were hits with Dylan's fans. I guess it is that way with most bands; songs appeal to different people for different reasons. Many of my favorite songs were never commercially popular.

Rolling Stone wrote that the album was "an instant success." That isn't how I remember it. "Tangled Up in Blue" was well received, and perhaps people bought "Blood on the Tracks" in spite of the critics. I don't know. I don't think I ever did know.

I liked "Tangled Up in Blue," but I would probably pick one song, maybe two, from the album that I liked a little better — but just a little. One followed it on Side A — "Simple Twist of Fate."

Or I might pick "Shelter From the Storm" from Side B.

Really, though, it is a masterful album. I have heard it described as "flawless," which is a little absolute for my taste, but I sympathize with the sentiment. "Blood on the Tracks" is one of those rare albums where not a song seems out of place. To omit any would diminish it.

The material is gritty. Some critics have suggested that the songs on "Blood on the Tracks" were inspired by Dylan's problems with his marriage at the time. I don't know if that is true; I do know that the songs are not happy ones and if a song is not unhappy, it is, at least, anxious or has a sense of resignation to the idea that, if everything is good right now, it is only a matter of time before things go south.

I have friends who are more knowledgeable about Dylan than I, and they, I am sure, have different opinions on that subject.

Dylan, to my knowledge, has always denied that the music was inspired by his life, but his son has said that, when he listens to "Blood on the Tracks," he thinks the music is describing scenes from his parents' marriage.

Dylan has introduced "Tangled Up in Blue" in a concert by saying it took 10 years to live and two years to write — which sounds awfully autobiographical to me.

I recall, at the time the album was released, that some people told Dylan how much they enjoyed it. His response was that he couldn't understand how anyone could enjoy that kind of pain.

He was right — to an extent — and, as I see it, Dylan's observation is further proof that at least some of "Blood on the Tracks" was about his marriage. Great pain — and his lyrics do speak of great anguish — is not the sort of thing that people can rightfully say they enjoy, but it is the kind of thing that an artist — a painter, a sculptor, a composer, a writer — is compelled to use for inspiration. It is a catalyst. The artist really has no choice.

Yes, that is what artists do. The act of taking that pain and turning it into something beautiful gives the experience its meaning, its validity.

So my feeling is that there probably was at least an element of Dylan's private life that inspired the music on "Blood on the Tracks." If I am right, then Dylan took what he had experienced and used it to make something truly remarkable.

And when I say remarkable, I mean the songs that weren't publicly recognizable as well the ones that were.

Dylan had some of his most sensitive, delicate guitar work on "Blood on the Tracks""You're a Big Girl Now," "Meet Me in the Morning," "If You See Her, Say Hello," "Buckets of Rain."