[27 April 2010]
“Tangled Up in Blue”
A poor young man, a redhead, a married woman, a topless dancer, a cook, two lovers of poetry, a slave owner and a mathematician.
It sounds like a list that should be followed by the phrase “walk into a bar…” However, as created by the pen of Bob Dylan, they are not a joke at all; they are the seemingly disparate pieces of one of Dylan’s most amazing compositions, “Tangled Up in Blue”.
Opening up an album with a timeless tale of lost love is a strong statement for any musician to make, but with Blood on the Tracks Bob Dylan chose a statement that was much stronger.
He opened it with “Tangled Up in Blue”, a timeless tale of lost love.
He opened it with “Tangled Up in Blue”, two timeless tales of lost love.
He opened it with “Tangled Up in Blue”, several tales of lost love presented by various narrators about any number of women.
Devoid of all linear storytelling, “Tangled Up in Blue” is a far departure from any average love song released before or since.
It starts simply enough, in the morning. “Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’ / I was layin’ in bed / Wond’rin’ if she’d change at all / If her hair was still red” Dylan sings matter-of-factly in first person narration. He mentions that her parents didn’t like his parents because they were too poor before ending the first verse on the side of the road proclaiming, “Lord knows I’ve paid some dues getting’ through / Tangled up in blue.”
Through the course of one 13-line verse, Dylan introduces two young lovers, offers a glimpse of conflict and leaves the impression that they’re not going to last. Then? Well then he moves on.
He begins the second verse in the voice of a new narrator, possibly, and sings of his love for a married woman in the midst of a divorce, a woman that doesn’t seem to have any relation to the redhead at all. Once again he sings of love and the loss of love. By the time he begins the third verse, he’s a cook that gets fired and travels to New Orleans alone: “... seen a lot of women / But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew / Tangled up in blue.”
The “she” that is in such strong possession of his affection could be the redhead or it could be the married woman, but in order for it to be either it means that the cook has to be the narrator from either the first or second verse. The “she” in question might be both the redhead and the married woman, but that would mean that they have to be the same woman.
Dylan never gives any answers; he never connects any dots. He simply continues to introduce a new coupling in each verse (possibly a threesome in the sixth) that can function as a story all on its own but can just as easily be linked to one or more of its counterparts.
That’s how exhilarating a jigsaw puzzle “Tangled Up in Blue” is. It is a masterpiece that never ceases to be organic, the pop equivalent of an E. E. Cummings poem. The verses are interchangeable and any path a listener chooses still leads them to write part of each story themselves. Any attempt to make the story linear yields a musical mobius strip that continues to flip itself inside out. The ambiguity is the cornerstone of “Tangled Up in Blue”‘s genius. It is what has kept listeners tangled up in it for 35 years. Gregg Lipkin
On an album of captivating story-songs and crushing ballads, “Simple Twist of Fate” is unique. Unlike Blood on the Tracks’ epics, “Simple Twist of Fate” is the story of a single night; unlike most of the ballads, which tend to move around time and space in a near-stream of consciousness, “Simple Twist of Fate” concentrates everything—meeting, interaction, parting, aftermath—into one focused, linear narrative.
Softly emerging from the silence following the full-band “Tangled Up in Blue”, the quiet of Dylan’s strum emphasizes the solitude of the narrator, a man relating the story of a couple who meet, hook up, and separate by morning. The woman disappears, and the man is left wandering around dazed, wondering what happened and whether he’ll see her again. In the last of “Simple Twist of Fate”‘s six verses, the narrative shifts from third person to first, and the singer relates his own situation to the story he’s just told us, without explicitly saying, “Yes, I was that man.” But what else are we to make of the stray first-person phrase, “I remember well,” sung in the second verse in a way that actually sounds like a reminiscence, like a slip-up that betrays the identity of the man we aren’t supposed to think is the singer himself? Despite Dylan’s own protestations to the contrary, it’s easy to read “Simple Twist of Fate” as being a confessional song, autobiographical in attitude or emotion if not in fact.
One of the hallmarks of a great Bob Dylan performance, I think, is an abundance of little moments—not hooks, exactly, because these wonderful moments typically only happen once—but accidents, a stray note, or just the way a word escapes his lips. “Simple Twist of Fate” is a great Bob Dylan performance. The way he comes in a fraction too early with the phrase “of a blind man at the gate”—so that we hear the first word as something like “above”—is one of those tiny flaws that anyone else would’ve edited out in the name of perfection, or the way he sings “twist” in the final line, as a two-syllable word.
We can’t ignore the hooks, though, and there are a couple of brilliant ones here, in the tension-building chord Dylan hits in the fourth line of each verse, and the way that line builds to a scream (“straaaaaaaight,” “laaaaaaaaaate”) before resolving with the title phrase.
Somewhere between the hook and the happy little moment is Tony Brown’s wonderfully imaginative bass playing. Listen to the very beginning of the song, which is simply a run through a vocal-less verse: the open E tuning that Dylan uses makes for some very subtle chord changes over the first three lines; it’s Brown who carries the instrumental melody here, and it bears little resemblance to the vocal melody Dylan introduces soon after. Of the four Dylan-and-Brown numbers on Blood on the Tracks, “Simple Twist of Fate” seems, to these ears, to have the richest sound. It’s one of Dylan’s best performances, and Brown’s contribution is integral to the song’s success.
The sound achieved during the New York sessions—largely the result of putting Dylan in a big, echoey room with tech-savvy and hands-off studio personnel—is especially effective at conveying the emptiness and sadness of “Simple Twist of Fate”. The “scream” lines hit hard; you believe Dylan when he sings “the room was bare”. Even the sound of Dylan’s cufflinks hitting his guitar—very audible during the first harmonica solo—adds something intangible to the performance.
And, oh yes, there’s the lyrics. Possibly the most poetically perfect set on the album, its five-line verses burst with an inventive rhyme scheme: AAABBCC, with the final A and second B occurring mid-line. The only line that doesn’t really work as an image is the parrot line in the fifth verse, which Dylan would replace within a matter of months when he performed “Simple Twist of Fate” on a TV tribute to John Hammond. And even that one still sounds great. Surrounding it, though, are images and phrases that rank among Dylan’s best: “The light bust through a beat-up shade”; “He felt the heat of the night hit him like a freight train”; or the final couplet, “She was born in spring, but I was born too late / Blame it on a simple twist of fate.” After that our singer leaves us, with a final sigh of the harmonica, and goes on waiting. Tom Useted
“You’re a Big Girl Now”
Love is so simple, to quote a phrase
You’ve known it all the time, I’m learnin’ it these days
A few years ago I was watching, again, the great French film Les Enfants du Paradis(The Children of Paradise). About an hour into the first act, Baptiste has introduced himself to Garance, the woman he has loved at a distance, and is escorting her home. They share pertinent details of past experiences and how it has shaped their inner lives. He confesses his love for her. She cannot reciprocate the sentiment, but still embraces him and they kiss. She pulls back. Baptiste, cloudy and lovestruck, murmurs her name. Garance, holding eye contact, smiles and says softly, “Love is so simple.” I looked up from the screen and thought of “You’re a Big Girl Now”, surprised I hadn’t noticed it before.
Baptiste’s flood of feelings and confession of love for Garance springs from his own inner conflation of dreams and reality. Garance, for her part, understands love more as an affectionate game, a reflection of her independence. The narrator of the song, like Baptiste, expresses romantic idealization. The beloved of the song, like Garance, is independent and self-reliant. The narrator of the song, like the men in the movie, holds no rancor for his beloved. Her independence is a feature of her attraction, it is her knowledge, which he is now coming to understand, even as he holds out the hope that through his understanding she may yet be possessed.
It is not that this is a song about the characters in Les Enfants du Paradis, but a response to the film is informing the narrator’s understanding of the woman in question, I am surmising, as it informed Dylan’s construction of the lyric. Dylan had definitely seen the film during this period, and spoke of it in several interviews. Les Enfants du Paradis is, in its way, wrapped into Dylan’s work in the 1974-1977 period. He admired it as a film that “stopped time”, an interest evident in Blood on the Tracks and Renaldo and Clara, conceptually and materially.
In the liner notes for the Biograph box set, Dylan had this to say about the song: “I read that this was supposed to be about my wife. I wish somebody would ask me first before they go ahead and print stuff like that. I mean it couldn’t be about anybody else but my wife, right?” That is, don’t misread the songs on Blood on the Tracks as exclusively autobiographical or confessional. Bob Dylan as an artist exhibits a great curiosity and an actor’s capacity for projection and empathy. The album is filled with indirect references to other works.
It is the ache of the song which is so present in every listen. The plaintive cries mid-verse still cut; this is a sensitive soul in pain. The lyrics provide simple, precise images. The bird on the horizon both establishes an open, empty and spatial landscape, and that there is a currency to love and a price to pay even in reflection and articulation. In the last verse, in lines that border on banal, the narrator notes that great change is afoot, that he is reluctant to change, that it is causing him severe pain. But, as he has acknowledged, this is the hard road to maturity. Few love songs have realized or expressed such understanding. Jeff Carter
“Idiot Wind” has anger issues. It opens on a note of paranoia, its chorus a remorseless string of insults. Over its seven-plus minutes, it levels accusation after accusation at someone who is powerless to respond, and ends with a patronizing attempt at pity. The song has a well-deserved reputation for raw, intemperate vitriol, which makes it particularly suitable for painful breakups. It’s at once a postmortem of a failed relationship and a profound denial of such a failure, an anguished demand for explanations that can’t possibly satisfy. When my friend’s wife left him, he told me he listened to nothing but “Idiot Wind” for weeks, and I believed him.
For the recently rejected, “Idiot Wind” offers emotional triage, giving urgent voice to pressing feelings of disbelief and devastation over a love abruptly revealed as irreparably broken: “Your eyes don’t look into mine.” “The wheels have stopped.” “I can’t feel you anymore.” “You’ll never know the hurt I suffered.” “I’ll never know … your kind of love, and it makes me feel so sorry.” But the stark epiphanies are scattered among inscrutable fragments of narrative that render the jilted lover’s confusion both grandiose and a little absurd. There’s a dead wife, an inheritance, a fortune teller, a chestnut mare, soldiers and corpses, boxcars and buildings on fire while a priest watches impassively. It’s fitting that the fragments don’t add up and have multiple, contradictory meanings. Only momentum holds them together.
In his vocal delivery, Dylan sustains a level of defiant intensity that begins to seem unrelenting and a little scary. (This is even more pronounced on the live version on Hard Rain.) The reservoir of spite seems bottomless, powering his own tellingly idiotic-sounding yodel on the chorus. He relishes each ambiguous punchline at the end of every verse—the “sweet lady” and the “you’re on the bottom” and the “blood on your saddle”—even as they begin to cut both ways. It’s as though he’s willing himself toward catharsis, even though the words won’t cooperate. His ferocity doesn’t sap itself; he refuses to sound a conciliatory note even when the lyrics seem to demand it. It’s always a shock when the song suddenly ends, as there’s so much palpable, untapped energy left in Dylan’s performance. He’s on the cusp of the catharsis that won’t come.
It makes sense to turn to “Idiot Wind” with undressed emotional wounds, but not because the song serves as a salve. Instead, it seems to refresh the wound, keeping the flame of anger alive, urging fresh fantasies of vengeance: “I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long, I can’t remember what it’s like,” Dylan sings, and he sounds almost pleased. After all, anger in some ways is preferable to facing what’s beyond it, the recognition that betrayal is irreversible and fury is impotent.
But “Idiot Wind” also shows how anger finally abandons us to a more unsettling emptiness: “One day you’ll be in the ditch,” Dylan sings, “flies buzzin’ around your eyes”. The lines are hurled with contempt at a faithless lover, but they resonate, haunting everything that follows. One day, the flies will be buzzing around his eyes, and ours too. Is that what it means to “win the war after losing every battle”? Is that what it will take to be “double-crossed for the very last time,” to be “finally free”? Maybe it’s best not to be free; maybe it’s better to go back to the beginning, listen to the song one more time, go through it all again. Rob Horning
“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”
It comes on too bright and breezy after the devastation of “Idiot Wind”, a bit of light relief, perhaps, to close Side One of the record. A jaunty harmonica melody, uptempo guitar strumming, and then that high, pinched Dylan vocal that harks back to the “domestic retreat” albums from a few years before. Dylan is singing of love coming easy, of it being “more correct / Right on target, so direct.” So direct that the song is treated to one of the neatest, most economical structures to be found on Blood on the Tracks. After three verses of domestic bliss, we get a change in scenery. The meter and the music changes and the lyrics move into even softer focus: “Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy / Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme.” No buzzing flies or raging glory, here; it’s all a bit more Disney than Dylan.
It hasn’t always been slow, lazy rivers and chirping insects, though. Returning to the main verse structure, we hear that the singer’s past relationships have all been bad, “like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud[‘s].” From Bambi to Rimbaud: this is the Dylan we were expecting to hear from, the Dylan who’d recently taken us for a tour through his (or someone’s) tortured psyche. The next time the tune slows, there’s less emphasis on romantic idyll and more recognition that change is coming. The singer’s staying behind and he’s not sure why.
It’s a song about love then, about the decisions, doubts, and the heartbreak that love brings. It’s an appealing track, not only due to its undoubted hummability, but also to its wise acceptance and modesty. It’s a song that charms. Paul Williams neatly sums up the appeal: “Sure as we’ve all been in love, been loved, we’ve all had the experience of being in someone’s eyes this charming, this much fun.” Part of the fun is to be found in Dylan’s enjoyment of the words, which, typically for him, are treated in a way that serves song and singer rather than sense. “Rimbaud’s” is actually sung as “Rimbaud”, to rhyme with “go”, and “Honolulu” becomes “Honolula”, to find correspondence with “Ashtabula”.
“There’s no way I can compare / All those scenes to this affair,” sings Dylan in what might as well be a reference to other songs on the album (“I know every scene by heart,” he sings in “If You See Her, Say Hello”, and “Tangled up in Blue” is nothing if not a set of scenes). But we, as listeners, can’t help but compare. There are too many ghosts haunting Blood on the Tracks. And even here, that word “lonesome” sticks out from every verse, echoing down through the years and the songs that Dylan has shared with us.
If it wasn’t clear from the refrain, it’s there in the final verse: “I’ll look for you in old Honolula / San Francisco, or Ashtabula / You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know.”
Now we know the reason for the nature imagery; it’s a form of mnemonic: “I’ll see you in the sky above / In the tall grass, in the ones I love.” Like the narratives of Townes Van Zandt, a songwriter whose work Dylan has covered, nature is a privileged site for the placing of mental impressions that can be stored for future access. “Will it be the willow / that hears your lonesome song?” asks Van Zandt in his own “None but the Rain”.
Others have covered “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” as primarily a song of departure. Ben Watt of Everything but the Girl provided a reading imbued with mellow regret on his 1982 album North Marine Drive. Over two decades later, Madeleine Peyroux cast the song as a weary late night jazz lament on her album Careless Love (its title taken from the lyrics to Dylan’s song). Neither artist got it wrong; the song is both weary and mellow, a recognition of inevitable decay postponed rather than dealt with. It’s just that Dylan, recording the original in 1974 amidst the hard memories, accusations and self-recrimination of the Blood on the Tracks material, found a moment to dwell without regret on the bittersweet nature of passing time. The end result is a gilded thorn, its barb hidden within that breezy delivery. As it fades out—inviting, in the era of vinyl, a brief reflection before the rigors of Side Two—you can be forgiven for feeling happy about the way things have turned out for this singer. Richard Elliott
The weakest song on Blood on the Tracks, “Meet Me in the Morning” is lifted by its context. Not only is it the sole track on the album with mediocre lyrics (that “darkest hour before the dawn” line, though endlessly attributed to Dylan, was already a cliché by the time he used it – just ask David Crosby), it is also the least tuneful song, riding a basic and undistinguished blues riff. Indeed, this would have been a merely average track on Planet Waves; however, surrounded as it is by songs replete with such extraordinary imagery of loss and pain and regret, this simplistic lament for abandoned love still works, if only barely.
If Blood on the Tracks is a “break-up record” (a reading which Dylan has refused, though we all still refuse to believe him), then “Meet Me in the Morning” is its most direct statement. Opening Side Two, it re-introduces (if it doesn’t elaborate much) the theme and tone of the record as a whole. Dylan (or the protagonist, anyway) is bereft, forsaken, either after failing to convince his lover to run away with him, or simply because she has left him and gone away. Backing off from the rawness of the original lyrics recorded at the September sessions – which we can hear in “Call Letter Blues” on The Bootleg Series, Volume 2 – Dylan leaves us to guess at what’s going on in the official version. Indeed, relying on elliptical images (“Little rooster crowing / There must be something on his mind / Well, I feel just like that rooster / Honey, you treat me so unkind”) rather than the uncomfortably straightforward language of the original draft (“Children cry for Mother / I tell them ‘Mother took a trip’ / Well, I walk on pins and needles / I hope my tongue don’t slip”), “Meet Me in the Morning” only hints at the darkness beneath its surface.
Perhaps this is why the song feels so half-hearted? The first approach was an unhinged nightmare blues; a baring of primal pain. It pushed us, as listeners, into a difficult place, privy to private demons and emotional trauma in which we might not want to share. For some – for me, often enough – listening to “Call Letter Blues” is simply too much. Like some of the material on John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, the confessions feel very nearly too personal, too confidential to be sung aloud. But that’s precisely why they are so affecting, so true. Stepping back from that terrible edge, Dylan re-made “Meet Me in the Morning” as a safer vision of the original, softening its impact but arresting its power. On one of the single greatest and most intimately confessional albums ever recorded, “Meet Me in the Morning” holds the only false notes. Stuart Henderson
“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”
Bob Dylan is so better than this.
Here sits Zimmerman, square in the middle of one of the most intensely personal post-break-up albums ever crafted, singing a nearly nine-minute story-song wherein every single verse ends with the phrase “Jack of Hearts”, ultimately adding up to 15 total repetitions, making this very description sound suspiciously like something Arlo Guthrie would tackle. There’s no choruses, there’s no bridges, and—save for a harmonica breakdown near the end—no significant change in instrumentation once during the entire onslaught. No, this is not the work of a master like Bob Dylan: it’s a hokey, jokey premise that, on paper, sounds like a prank being pulled on loyal listeners the world over.
So then why, pray tell, does “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” ultimately come off as one of the finest songs that Dylan has ever recorded?
Simple: Dylan knows convention, and he knows exactly how to subvert it to fit his own needs. Weaving a complex tapestry between two women trapped in relations with a rich, emotionally neglectful man named Big Jim, we learn of a mysterious figure named the Jack of Hearts, a bank-robber who seems to woo and intrigue virtually everyone he comes into contact with. For every verse wherein he appears at the cabaret where the action of the song takes place, there seems to be a matching one wherein he’s notably absent (his fellow burglars patiently wait up for him following their heist, he is conspicuously gone from Rosemary’s execution, yet still lingering in Lily’s mind), making him as slippery and elusive a figure as Dylan has introduced.
Yet, therein lies the intrigue. The Jack of Hearts has clearly defined character traits (a bank-robber, a fine actor, apparently blessed with abilities to take down Big Jim’s bodyguards should he want to), yet at the same time, there remains so much unknown about him. We get no description of his looks, no real idea of what he’s doing at this particular cabaret (distracting diamond magnate Big Jim from the drilling in the nearby wall, being as how the vaults being raided are likely filled with his money? Wooing the town’s women just for the thrill of it?), and by the time the song is over, we realize that he actually hasn’t said anything to anyone. Even with that, though, you wind up leaving the song with a clearly-defined image of the Jack of Hearts in your mind. You can call it lyrical slight-of-hand if you must, but to evoke such vivid characters from such basic descriptions requires nothing short of true mastery of the craft.
With 15 verses at his disposal (16 if you count the additional one that was thrown in on the Basement Tapes version, whose inclusion winds up completely redefining what Jack’s motivations are), Dylan uses his expressive-as-ever vocal wailings and evocative imagery to describe a scene so cinematic and character-driven that you wind up leaving this song feeling like you left a movie (so much so, in fact, that there are reports that multiple film adaptations have been attempted on this song alone). Although one can certainly read into the language for hints about Dylan’s own crumbling marriage (and why not?—it was recorded on the same day he did “Tangled Up in Blue”, after all), the best way to experience “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is to listen to it yourself and form your own interpretation of what truly happened at the cabaret, if anyone really got what they wanted, and whether or not our mysterious, charismatic, and enigmatic Jack is just one more guise for Dylan himself ... Evan Sawdey
On what is known as a legendary break-up album—and a particularly vitriolic one at that—“If You See Her, Say Hello” is one of the few moments where Dylan sheathes his sword and offers only unreserved kindness. There is zero hostility when he admits his pain: “Though our separation, it pierced me to the heart / She still lives inside of me, we’ve never been apart.” Later, he offers his characteristically sly self-depreciation: “I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off / Either I’m too sensitive or else I’m getting soft.” For a man who frequently, and quite capably, cuts down those who wronged him with a handful of words, this is a remarkable display of humility. To strengthen the impact of his words, he delivers them on an aching, twilit melody. Simply put, it’s one of most beautiful and tender moments in Dylan’s catalogue.
Coming where it does in the sequencing of the album (eighth of ten tracks) and with all the harshest barbs preceding it, I like to think of “If You See Her, Say Hello” as the calm after the storm, and the more honest portrait of Dylan at that point in his life: lonely, vulnerable, remorseful and, above all, a romantic. That it is followed by two songs (“Shelter from the Storm” and “Buckets of Rain”) that further its core sentiments only reinforces my belief. When contrasted against the diatribes “Idiot Wind” and “You’re a Big Girl Now”, the love and tenderness in “If You See Her, Say Hello” feels even more acute. The lesson being that feeling bitter and hostile towards someone you love will get you nowhere. Dylan’s parting words are the offer of an open door tinged with a little hope: “If she’s passing back this way, I’m not that hard to find / Tell her she can look me up if she’s got the time.” Ben Schumer
“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
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