Shelter From the Storm and "Buckets of Rain"
“Shelter from the Storm”
One of the things that makes Bob Dylan a legend is this: the version of “Shelter from the Storm” found on Blood on the Tracks is pretty much my least favorite version of the song.
The album version isn’t bad. We all have our preferred sides of Dylan; mine is the apocryphal, apocalyptic one, the gnomic Gnostic whose motto might as well be “Shelter from the Storm”’s sardonic “but nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts.” At his best, Dylan’s music competes fiercely with his words for our attention, but the rather conventional acoustic strum of the Blood on the Tracks version doesn’t put up much of a fight. Luckily, the narrative—one of the finest examples of Dylan’s ability to express the personal in the mythopoetic—more than compensates. Dylan’s tale of “a creature void of form” and his mysterious feminine benefactor (who somehow offers relief from and seems responsible for or completely above everything else in the song) is packed with incident, detail, humor, and indelible turns of phrase.
And yet … it’s forgivable, given the context of Blood on the Tracks, but that version feels a little jaunty and detached. In contrast, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell’s cover brings a warmth to the song that probably shouldn’t work but, Crowell and Harris being so talented, kind of does; Cassandra Wilson’s very interesting take from her Belly of the Sun album renders it a third-person allegory, seemingly in an attempt to answer the “hopeless and forlorn” question the narrator doesn’t quite understand.
Two versions stand above the rest, though. The first is Steve Adey’s, from his great All Things Real album. Adey’s funereal, despairing “Shelter from the Storm” lets a line like “try to imagine a place where it’s always safe and warm” carry all the ache of the world with it, and you feel the full weight of those lyrics. And leave it to Dylan himself to trump his own original version in a completely different way. The 1976 live album Hard Rain isn’t a classic, but the version of “Shelter from the Storm” found there (and seen here) certainly is. In a typically mercurial live performance, Dylan changes the song from jaunty to charging and drops several of the verses, but the way he spits out a line like “everything up to that point had been left unresolved” carries an equal and opposite charge to Adey’s version. If one of the hallmarks of a great song is that it can stand being stretched into different sounds and meanings, Adey and Dylan in ‘76 ably prove that “Shelter from the Storm” is a hell of a great song. Ian Mathers
“Buckets of Rain”
For all that’s been written about the songs on Blood on the Tracks, the record stands out among Dylan’s post-‘60s work, as much as anything, for its sheer listenability. It may be a folky rock record or a rocking folk record, but Blood on the Tracks ends with the pure, acoustic tranquility of “Buckets of Rain”. As the record as a whole was a renewal and opened a fresh chapter on Dylan’s legacy, closing with “Buckets of Rain” is also a tie to his musical past, a reminder of the acoustic-wielding folkie of Dylan’s original mercurial incarnation. With its unadorned arrangement and drop-E tuning, “Buckets”, of all of Blood on the Tracks’ songs, likely sounds closest to the versions Dylan had been pulling for his friends in his late ‘74 previews.
That spare, acoustic style serves as a tie to the past, as he’d written songs similar in arrangement and tone before—it’s a bit of “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, a little of “One Too Many Mornings”—and there’s nothing groundbreaking about “Bucket”‘s melody, as a listen to Tom Paxton’s “Bottle of Wine” would indicate. Yet “Buckets of Rain”, like the rest of Blood on the Tracks, is also sonically fresh, in this song’s case, as intimate and peaceful as Dylan had sounded in some time. On the song, Dylan is singing in his most casual delivery with a clearness of tone that is totally free of his earlier affectations. Here is Dylan, the serial shape-shifter, sounding as much like himself as he ever had.
“Buckets” is another of the Minneapolis songs, those recut after original sessions in New York, and the easy, offhand philosophy of the Minneapolis sessions is apparent. It’s a stellar take, and the undulating guitar picking is quite gorgeous, but those popping strings, increasingly forced by the end, allow for plenty of mistakes that were left uncorrected. Dylan knew, however, that those scars were part of the story. After Blood on the Tracks’ loudest songs in the middle section, and for all of the album’s focus on anguish, the record ends with three consecutive acoustic ballads, culminating with “Buckets of Rain”, the gentlest of the three and the lightest lyrically.
Over five refrainless verses, Dylan, after giving in earlier to anger or sorrow, puts at least some faith back in love. The opening lines about buckets of rain, tears, and moonbeams point out the juxtapositions of love’s blessings and curses — Dylan feels them all. He also owns up to his own famous contradictions — “I been meek and hard like an oak” and resigns to the shifting of time and companionship (“Friends will arrive and friends will disappear”). It’s unclear which of Dylan’s lovers he’s addressing. Is it Sara’s smile that he likes? Ellen’s fingertips? Then again, perhaps this is an accumulation of women and a record full of such ponderings, for which the tally is equal to misery.
Dylan attempts to lighten the mood with the fourth verse’s playground rhymes — “Little red wagon / Little red bike / I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like” — and while he sometimes hints that love will endure (“If you want me ... I’ll be here” or “I’m taking you with me ... when I go”), he knows that, in the end, “Life is sad / Life is a bust.” On an album in which Dylan is obsessed with the subject of romantic love, he sounds nothing if not profoundly lonely at album’s end, as his “honey baby” — Dylan was always a master with syllables — remains tantalizingly out of reach. If “Buckets of Rain” looks back musically, it looks forward thematically, holding out the hope of cleaning up wreckage and leaving it behind, softening the desolation found elsewhere. On the other hand, it’s a song that sums up the conflagration of emotions on Blood on the Tracks, even ending with a question, and given the range of musical and psychological heft laid out over these 50 minutes, the blend of beauty and uncertainty in “Buckets of Rain” is an appropriate way to leave things. Steve Leftridge