Created by one of popular music’s most charismatic and vital figures, the 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks” helped to demolish all past preconceptions of Bob Dylan’s carefully crafted public image while hurtling him to the commercial forefront of music yet again. And it excels at making grown men (me) cry.
Before “Blood on the Tracks” became one of the most critically acclaimed albums of all time, Dylan had to endure a long creative hiatus. It seemed that the bard of the ’60s was not showing up to the studio with inventive material like “Mr. Tambourine Man” anymore. By this point, Dylan had left behind his folk-rock popularity and had entered the ’70s with little to nothing new to share with his adoring fans.
The early ’70s had Dylan covering dusty folk tunes, crafting uneven soft-rock and finding new ways to tick off his dedicated fan base. Don’t get me wrong, I personally feel that this period has a strong amount of extremely great and consistent moments. The casual fans and record labels at the time could care less about commercial and perceived creative mediocrity, though.
The mixture of poor album sales, a hefty break from touring and an inability to be ahead of a new creative curve like he was a decade prior meant that Dylan was not exactly gaining any new fans. If anything, he was losing them. The commercial expectations put on Dylan’s curly-haired head were simply too monumental for middle-of-the-road covers and poorly-received albums.
Apart from his creative lull, Dylan was going through marital troubles behind the scenes. Dylan was never one to turn away an interested partner, and it seemed like he was finally paying the price of his polygamous practices. Dylan’s wife at the time, Sara Dylan, was understandably moving towards divorcing him.
The divorce devastated Dylan beyond measure. So much so that for the first time in his illustrious career, Dylan was writing pretty exposing lyrics about the deteriorating relationship with his soon to be ex-wife. Even in the past, Dylan’s most personal lyrics were shrouded in poetic nuances meant to keep man and lyrics separate. Dylan decided to double-down and continue the separate relationships that were the causes of the divorce, going as far as to include material based on these affairs for the album.
The material set for Dylan’s new album was looking to be the most personal and telling of his career, which nobody following him at the time could have expected after numerous years of mainstream creative silence.
The songs found on “Blood on the Tracks” reveal more about Dylan’s inner being than any other work had in his career up to that point. For a man who worked so hard to be disconnected from the songs he made, releasing an album of deeply personal, tell-all divorce songs hit just as hard as you’d think.
Album opener “Tangled Up in Blue” is practically autobiographical, leading the listener through numerous scenes of a budding relationship. The song tends to give me the desire to pack up all of my belongings and travel across the country in an RV I don’t own. On the seven-minute “Idiot Wind,” Dylan doesn’t hold back any emotions as he scathingly berates a significant other over the rush of a pounding organ. If you’ve ever needed a warm-up song set to the scene of yelling at your wife (relationship counseling may be the next step), here’s the song. Songs “Simple Twist of Fate” and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” partially document two separate affairs Dylan was having around the time of the album. TWO.
The fact that the man could be so upset about a divorce that he had to create a public piece of art exploring his tangled inner being at the time and still included two songs about the cause of the divorce is both ultra-interesting and understandable. Even more intriguing, for reasons I doubt anybody can explain, Sara Dylan was at the recording sessions for most of these songs. I could only imagine the awkwardness during the recordings of some of those heavier lines. Nevertheless, the invisible existence of Sara Dylan at these sessions adds to the intrigue that surrounds the entire album.
Taking away the dramatic context that encases each of these songs, “Blood on the Tracks” is still pristinely atmospheric and perfectly-crafted. Songs like the high-charting “Shelter from the Storm” made certain the album would sell while still maintaining creative integrity. The gutting throaty yells Dylan unleashes in “You’re a Big Girl Now” suggests real pain. Understanding where that pain is coming from helps to connect the dots, but the song accomplishes speaking to an audience regardless. Mid-album stomper “Meet Me in the Morning” is the perfect slow-burn interlude that connects both sides of the record with poetic imagery and dusty riffs. Reception for the album was initially mixed, with reviewers mostly blaming Dylan’s aging record production techniques. But who needs hi-fi production when you’re Bob Dylan?
Despite the creative greatness found on “Blood on the Tracks,” Dylan would struggle to reach the same commercial precipice again until the late ’90s.
If I were to ask someone of their knowledge of Bob Dylan today, they may know the famous protests songs of the early ’60s or the countless hits that he continuously spewed out at ease. They may know “Blood on the Tracks” itself. But with a discography as exhausting as Dylan’s, even the gems and the context that they were created in can be overlooked to some degree.
Should that be forgiven? Absolutely not. If you care about music enough to explore past the radio hits of our time, you deserve to know that the pure piece of art that is “Blood on the Tracks” exists. I’m not saying everybody should melt on-site at the sound of the mysterious, whiplash-inducing storytelling found in the track “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” But if I was in any way intrigued by buildings and architecture, I would very much hope that someone would let me know that the Taj Mahal was a thing in India somewhere.
Thomas Piotrowski is a junior music business and journalism major from Flora, Indiana.