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Sketches for a masterpiece: what the expanded Blood on the Tracks tells us about Bob Dylan's great record

Bob Dylan records His first album for Columbia in November 1962
Bob Dylan records His first album for Columbia in November 1962 Credit:  Michael Ochs Archives/ Michael Ochs Archives

“Early one morning the sun was shining, I was layin’ in bed / I was wonderin’ if she had changed at all, if her hair was still red?” With an air of casual intimacy, thus begins one of the wildest and most emotionally wrenching collections of songs ever sung.

Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks may be the finest work from the most supernaturally gifted singer-songwriter of our age. The clue to its intense resonance is in the title. The tracks are the grooves of a vinyl disc. The blood that has been spilled is Dylan’s own. It is heartbreak on a record. "A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album,” Dylan once commented, with a hint of bitterness. “It's hard for me to relate to people enjoying that type of pain."

Well they say time heals. Forty-three years later, it is being made available in an expanded edition, presumably with added heartbreak. More Blood, More Tracks is a box set featuring every surviving take from the original recording sessions. A film adaptation has also been announced by Oscar-winning Italian director Luca Guadagnino. It will apparently tell “a multiyear story, set in the seventies,” according to the filmmaker, dramatizing “what happens when you let your passions take over too much.” Despite superficial similarities, the results are unlikely to have much in common with Mamma Mia.

Arguably, it is among Dylan’s most cinematic works, crammed with vivid images (“There’s a lone soldier on the cross / Smoke pourin’ out of a box car door”), deft scene setting (“The light burst in through a beat up shade where he was waking up”), memorable characters (there is an entire cast of outlaws in Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts) and even pithy dialogue (“I thought you’d never say hello / You look like the silent type”). For a record so tightly focussed on romantic misery, it has a vast range. It expands from forensic dissections of failed relationships (You’re A Big Girl Now) into epic tales of misaligned love (Tangled Up In Blue), encompassing bittersweet regret (Simple Twist of Fate, If You See Her Say Hello), angry recrimination (Idiot Wind), desolate misery (Meet Me In The Morning) and melancholic whimsy (Buckets of Tears), all wrapped up in a quasi-mythic sense of the tragic capriciousness of fate (Shelter From The Storm). Through it all beats what Dylan sums up as “a pain that stops and starts / Like a corkscrew to my heart / Ever since we’ve been apart.”

It is widely regarded as Dylan’s divorce album, although he has tried to disavow that perception. In his brilliant but unreliable memoir, Chronicles, Dylan alludes to “an entire album based on Chekhov short stories” which “critics thought was autobiographical.” It does share with Chekhov qualities of compressed time, exploring the impact of the past on the present in memories of elusive, idealised romance. Yet Dylan’s protestations that “I don’t write confessional songs” are surely disingenuous.

Bob Dylan - Blood on the Tracks record Cover

The album was released in January 1975. Dylan was 33 years old. The hallucinatory language and mercurial spirit of his densely lyrical songs had altered the course of popular music. But by the end of the Sixties, the volatile genius was in retreat from oppressive idolatry. He e stopped touring in 1968 and lived for years in the relative isolation of Woodstock, upstate New York, with his wife, Sara Lownds, immortalised in 1966 as his  Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Together they raised four young children. 

For all the intriguing qualities of the simpler, rootsier music Dylan made during his withdrawal (best exemplified by the bootleg Basement Tapes) there was a sense that his powers had been diminished. But something was stirring. Dylan returned to the road in 1974 amidst behind the scenes reports of drinking and womanising. Yet there was something other than conventional vices upsetting his idyll. Dylan had been attending art classes in New York by a 73-year-old painter, Norman Raeburn, whose philosophical approach was concerned with “truth and love and beauty”. According to Dylan himself “he taught you about putting your head and your mind and your eye together… It changed me. I went home after that and my wife never did understand me ever since that day. That’s when our marriage started breaking up. She never knew what I was talking about, what I was thinking about. And I couldn’t possibly explain it.”

As his marriage disintegrated, Dylan retreated alone to a farm in Minnesota, painting and writing songs. But it would be simplistic to suggest the results faithfully chronicle his break up with Sara. Dylan was simultaneously conducting an affair with a 24-year-old Columbia Records executive, Ellen Bernstein (often identified as the subject of You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go). The ghosts of past lovers haunt lyrics that weave complex stories touching on notions of identity, destiny, desire and sacrifice. The working title of Simple Twist of Fate was 4th Street Affair, memorialising the address where Dylan lived with Suzie Rotolo in the early Sixties. And Joan Baez believed Idiot Wind was, at least in part, aimed at her. 

Bob Dylan writing

“I was trying to do something that I didn’t think had ever been done before,” Dylan has explained about the bewildering opening track, Tangled Up In Blue. “I wanted to defy time, so that the story took place in the present and the past at the same time. When you look at a painting, you can see any part of it, or see all of it together. I wanted that song to be like a painting.”

For someone notoriously careless in the studio, Dylan demonstrated unusual fastidiousness over Blood on the Tracks. He recorded it stripped back and raw in New York in September 1974, with only a handful of musicians adding subtle shading. It was made ready for pressing but Dylan was dissatisfied. He went into a studio in Minneapolis in December and re-recorded seven tracks, adding instrumentation, changing lyrics and sharpening vocals. The original acoustic New York version can be heard in full on More Blood, More Tracks, including sardonic cast-off Up To Me. It is, in some ways, sadder and starker, but it lacks the colour and dimension of the finished version. These are sketches for a masterpiece.

Blood on the Tracks is the most intricate, eloquent and merciless examination of the downside of love ever committed to record, leavened only by black humour. Dylan’s singing is heart rending, every timbre and tone immersed in the emotions of the moment. Even the cover evokes the core theme: a blown up, colour-solarised portrait of a haunted man disintegrating before our very eyes. This is the art of darkness.

It would take a hard woman to turn her back on such magnificently articulated sorrow. Dylan and his wife reunited in 1975 (inspiring the song Sara, on Desire) only to divorce two years later, in 1977 (the last embers of an exhausted relationship are vividly explored on 1978’s underrated Street Legal). No one would surely wish discord and unhappiness upon an artist, yet it is hard to argue that divorce often wrings particularly brilliant work from our greatest songwriters, seeding such masterpieces as Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear, Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones, Elvis Costello’s Blood & Chocolate and Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love. 

But Blood on the Tracks reigns over them all, a devastation of the heart only made palatable by the richness of its expression. Like the book of ancient poetry Dylan invokes in Tangled Up In Blue: “Every one of them words rang true and glowed like burnin’ coal / Pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul.” Hear it and weep.