Monday, 15 April 2013

Blood On The Tracks - Bob Dylan - album review

It is a truism that albums, or records generally, assume greater personal relevance or resonance if they touch on a raw area of experience for the listener.  The words and themes begin to loom much larger in the consciousness.

For me, an example of this is Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, released in early 1975. Until comparatively recently, I had respected this as a collection of frank, confessional and well-crafted songs, and could understand the eulogies which placed this album among the foremost achievements in Dylan's career. However, listening to it in recent months has infused this music with a new poignancy and power for me.

The writing and recording of this collection of songs took place amid personal turmoil and upheaval for the songwriter.  These factors undoubtedly helped to catalyse matters, although it is also fair to argue that Dylan's artistic vitality was on something of an upswing anyway as the mid-Seventies approached.

In strict musical terms there is little which is out of the ordinary on Blood On The Tracks, but it is the combination of lyrics, and the atmosphere evoked by the melodies and soundscape, which creates the overall effect. In fact, some might find the diet of acoustic guitars a little samey and stodgy, but in general the compelling poetry and songcraft override such qualms.

The record opens with three or four memorable songs, on which much of the album's reputation is founded.

Many people who have never heard the record assume (like I once did) that this is almost a concept album, but I think that this is a misrepresentation.  Yes, the lyrics to most of the tracks address issues of regret, loneliness and melancholy, but there is sufficient variation in context and scenario to make each song self-contained and autonomous.  The opener "Tangled Up in Blue" sets the tone, but it would be a mistake to assume that every song is just a derivation of this one.

The album is filled with powerful tracks, but for me the most affecting by far is "Simple Twist Of Fate".  A masterly amalgam of Dylan's lyrical styles, it achieves the rare distinction of compelling the listener to conjure up visual images, as well as acute emotions, in his or her mind.

"You're A Big Girl Now" has a resolutely mid-Seventies sheen and ambience, reminding me of a oppressively humid and mournful summer's evening.  Some very pleading and heartfelt vocal lines from the great man, and rich but wistful chord changes, contribute to the overall effect.

The next number, "Idiot Wind", almost has a "runaway" quality about it, and the lyrics and singing contain a blend of indignation and resignation.  This is all augmented and complemented by the "airless" production, promoted in part by the organ.

At the mid-point, "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" serves to inject some more simplicity and spontaneity, harking back to Dylan's pre-1967 output, albeit with tinges of the melodic and production motifs which run through this whole album.

Of the later tracks, (I will skip the Dylan-by-numbers of "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts"), the most impactful is the heart-wrenching "If You See Her, Say Hello", which has a genuine pathos, even by the standards of Blood On The Tracks.  The singing also feels spontaneous, rather than the result of some affectation.

"Shelter From The Storm" is another one which is redolent of Dylan's compositions circa 1964/65, but less oblique lyrically, and it retains the interest, and ticks thematic boxes, sufficiently to feel at home in this company.  One of this record's unheralded strengths is the mixture of dense and stripped-down arrangements, which temper what could have become a feeling of claustrophobia.

Many "classic" albums tend to have a real tour-de-force for a closing track, a bookend of real stamp.  "Buckets of Rain" scarcely qualifies as such, but its downbeat and ascetic pallor is strangely appropriate here.

In purely musical terms quite conservative, Blood On The Tracks nevertheless has a sincerity, directness and emotional punch which make it special.  In its own way, as substantial as anything produced by Bob Dylan.

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