Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks – [Record 112]
Blood on the Tracks is the fifteenth studio album by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, released on January 20, 1975 by Columbia Records. The album marked Dylan’s return to Columbia Records after a two-album stint with Asylum Records. Dylan commenced recording the album in New York City in September 1974. In December, shortly before Columbia was due to release the record, Dylan abruptly re-recorded much of the material in a studio in Minneapolis. The final album contained five tracks from New York and five tracks from Minneapolis.
Blood on the Tracks was initially received with mixed reviews, but has subsequently been acclaimed as one of Dylan’s greatest albums by critics and fans. The songs have been linked to tensions in Dylan’s personal life, including estrangement from his then-wife Sara, and one of their children, Jakob Dylan, has described the songs as “my parents talking”. The album has been viewed as an outstanding example of the confessional singer-songwriter’s craft, and it has been called “the truest, most honest account of a love affair from tip to stern ever put down on magnetic tape”. In interviews, Dylan has denied that the songs on the album are autobiographical. In 2003, the album was ranked number 16 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and in 2004, it was placed at number 5 on Pitchfork Media’s list of the top 100 albums of the 1970s.
The album reached #1 on the Billboard 200 charts and #4 on the UK Albums Chart. The single “Tangled Up in Blue” peaked at #31 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The album remains one of Dylan’s best-selling studio releases, with a double-platinum US certification by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
1. Tangled Up in Blue.
2. Simple Twist of Fate.
3. You’re a Big Girl Now.
4. Idiot Wind.
5. You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.
6. Meet Me in the Morning.
7. Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.
8. If You See Her, Say Hello.
9. Shelter from the Storm.
10. Buckets of Rain.
Pre-production: At the conclusion of his 1974 tour with The Band, Dylan began a relationship with a Columbia Records employee, Ellen Bernstein, which Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin has described as the beginning of the end of Dylan’s marriage to his wife Sara. In spring 1974, Dylan was in New York for several weeks while he attended art classes with the painter Norman Raeben. Dylan subsequently gave Raeben credit in interviews for transforming his understanding of time, and during the summer of 1974 Dylan began to write a series of songs in a red notebook which utilised his new knowledge:
“[Raeben] taught me how to see in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt… When I started doing it, it the first album I made was Blood on the Tracks. Everybody agrees that was pretty different, and what’s different about it is there’s a code in the lyrics, and also there’s no sense of time.”
Dylan subsequently spent time with Bernstein on his farm in Minnesota and there he completed the 17 songs from which Blood on the Tracks was formed—songs which Heylin has described as “perhaps the finest collection of love songs of the twentieth century, songs filled with the full spectrum of emotions a marriage on the rocks can engender”.
Prior to recording, Dylan previewed the songs that would constitute Blood on the Tracks for a number of friends in the music world, including David Crosby, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, Tim Drummond, and Peter Rowan. Nash recalled that Stills disliked Dylan’s private performance of his new songs; immediately after Dylan left the room, Stills remarked to Nash, “He’s a good songwriter … but he’s no musician.”
Initially, Dylan considered recording Blood on the Tracks with an electric backing group, and contacted Mike Bloomfield who had played lead guitar on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album. When the two met, Dylan ran through the songs he was planning to record, but he played them too quickly for Bloomfield to learn. Bloomfield later recalled the experience: “They all began to sound the same to me; they were all in the same key; they were all long. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life. He was sort of pissed off that I didn’t pick it up.” In the end, Dylan rejected the idea of recording the album with a band, and instead substituted stripped-down acoustic arrangements for all of his songs. On August 2, 1974, Dylan signed a contract with Columbia Records. After releasing his two previous albums, Planet Waves and Before the Flood, on Asylum Records, Dylan decided his new album would benefit from the commercial muscle of the record label that had made him famous, and his new contract gave him increased control over his own masters.
Recording sessions: Dylan commenced recording at A & R Recording Studios in New York City on September 16, 1974. Bernstein has stated “the theme of returning ran through the sessions”, so “it made a lot of sense to do it at A&R”. A & R Studios was the former Columbia Records “Studio A”, where Dylan had recorded six albums in the 1960s. The musicians quickly realized that Dylan was taking a “spontaneous” approach to recording. The session engineer, Phil Ramone, later said that Dylan transitioned from one song to another as if they were part of a medley. Ramone noted:
“Sometimes he will have several bars, and in the next version, he will change his mind about how many bars there should be in between a verse. Or eliminate a verse. Or add a chorus when you don’t expect.”
Eric Weissberg and his band, Deliverance, originally recruited as session men, were rejected after two days of recording because they could not keep up with Dylan’s pace. Dylan retained bassist Tony Brown from the band, and soon added organist Paul Griffin (who had also worked on Highway 61 Revisited) and steel guitarist Buddy Cage. After ten days and four sessions with the current lineup, Dylan had finished recording and mixing, and, by November, had cut a test pressing on the album. Columbia began to prepare to release the album before Christmas.
Dylan played the test pressing for his brother David, who persuaded Dylan the album would not sell because the overall sound was too stark. At his brother’s urging, Dylan agreed to re-record five of the album’s songs in Sound 80 in Minneapolis, with backing musicians recruited by David. The new takes were accomplished in two days at the end of December 1974. Blood on the Tracks was released into stores on January 20, 1975.
Autobiographical interpretation of Blood on the Tracks: The songs that constitute Blood on the Tracks have been described by many Dylan critics as stemming from his personal turmoil at the time, particularly his estrangement from his then-wife Sara Dylan. One of Bob and Sara Dylan’s children, Jakob Dylan, has said, “When I’m listening to Blood On The Tracks, that’s about my parents.”
Dylan has denied this autobiographical interpretation, stating in a 1985 interview with Bill Flanagan, “A lot of people thought that album pertained to me. It didn’t pertain to me… I’m not going to make an album and lean on a marriage relationship.” Informed of the album’s popularity, Dylan told Mary Travers in a radio interview in April 1975: “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean… people enjoying that type of pain, you know?” Addressing whether the album described his own personal pain, Dylan replied that he didn’t write “confessional songs”.
In his 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Vol. 1, Dylan stated that the songs have nothing to do with his own personal life, and that they were inspired by the short stories of Anton Chekhov.
Critical reception: Released in early 1975, Blood on the Tracks received mixed reviews. In the NME, Nick Kent described “the accompaniments as often so trashy they sound like mere practice takes.” In Rolling Stone, reviewer Jon Landau wrote that “the record has been made with typical shoddiness.”
An influential review of the album was written by Dylan critic Michael Gray for the magazine Let It Rock. Gray argued that this album transformed our perception of Dylan, that he was no longer defined as “the major artist of the sixties. Instead, Dylan has legitimized his claim to a creative prowess as vital now as then—a power not bounded by the one decade he so affected.” This view was amplified by Clinton Heylin, who wrote: “Ten years after he turned the rock & roll brand of pop into rock… [Dylan] renewed its legitimacy as a form capable of containing the work of a mature artist.” In The Village Voice, Robert Christgau wrote, “On the whole this is the man’s most mature and assured record.”
Over the years critics have come to see the album as one of Dylan’s greatest achievements. In Salon.com, Bill Wyman wrote: “Blood on the Tracks is his only flawless album and his best produced; the songs, each of them, are constructed in disciplined fashion. It is his kindest album and most dismayed, and seems in hindsight to have achieved a sublime balance between the logorrhea-plagued excesses of his mid-1960s output and the self-consciously simple compositions of his post-accident years.” Novelist Rick Moody called it “the truest, most honest account of a love affair from tip to stern ever put down on magnetic tape.”
The acclaim surrounding Blood on the Tracks has meant that critics wishing to praise one of Dylan’s subsequent albums have often described it as “his best since Blood on the Tracks.”