An Ugly Album Cover at a Career and Cultural Crossroads

Bob Dylan
Blood on the Tracks

It must be said: the cover artwork for Blood on the Tracks is ugly and lame, representative of an ill humor very much of its time, and paradoxically, in opposition to the album it was tasked with representing. The fuzzy profile of a seemingly pickled and blind Dylan is nothing like the clear-sighted and sharp-tongued Dylan we find in the music.

This is the story of the music on Blood on the Tracks leaving its own album cover — and the early ’70s — behind.

With the muted elegance of the mauve left-hand margin, and the image’s splotchy pointillism depicting Dylan himself with distinctly less feeling than a preschool’s paper shadow silhouette project, it comes across as a studied effort to avoid the appearance of vulnerability, while doing an unconvincing job of projecting anything like confidence. It is torpor masquerading as cool.

The image of Dylan is also a photograph disguised as a painting. Toronto photographer Paul Till snapped the profile shot during a January 1974 concert at Maple Leaf Gardens, and then used a combination of sophisticated dark room development techniques and photographic watercolors to produce the final atomized haze of Dylan. Till then mailed the images to Dylan’s management, and from that point it remains unclear how one of the shots ended up gracing the cover of Blood on the Tracks.

For color, the photo is smartly paired with a thick stripe of plum color along the left-hand side, and the artist name and album title are written in a New Deco font with precedents in several Mott the Hoople releases of the early ’70s. This lettering foreshadows the emergence of a clean limo-friendly decadence in rock: glam vanity colliding with prevailing pastoral principles, with Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 album Rumours in the role of musical apotheosis: Disco hippies on coke. Dylan’s sometime compatriots The Band would take part in the cocaine-fueled filming of their final concert in 1975 with Martin Scorsese (The Last Waltz), and in it they no longer resemble the anachronistic rural nobleman of their self-titled second album, but rather wasted dandies of Los Angeles. The lettering of Blood on the Tracks similarly captures rock’s embrace of city Babylon.

Taken together, the cover’s three main components — Dylan image, mauve left-hand margin, and font — are a hodgepodge of transitional motifs that have more or less nothing to do with the music of the album, not to mention any visual resonance with a title as allegorically violent as Blood on the Tracks.

This is the paradox: The cover artwork for Blood on the Tracks is a subdued and evasive effort that actually provides perfect cover for the songs themselves, songs that together amount to the first great emotional blast to come from mainstream rock since Jimi Hendrix, who channeled psychedelic, political, and emotional desires on nearly equal terms, died in November 1970.

Rock in the early ’70s followed Dylan’s own late ’60s retreat back to the cabin in order to shake off the remnants of ’60s revolutionary and psychedelic rhetoric. Grand ambitions of societal change were dropped but communal virtues persisted in the form of third person folk tales and first person songs delivered at considerable emotional distance. James Taylor, the Rolling Stones, CSN, Eric Clapton and lots of other artists who in this day and age have perhaps never been less cool (such is the change that has occurred over four decades), sang songs of pain as quaint gestures to past authenticities, and chronicled love lost as an occasion to hope for vaguely better days ahead.

Tales of low-key pleasure-seeking and pastoral contentedness abounded during this period of cultural history. Point of view, need, and true vulnerability were in little evidence, not to mention spite or anger. (R&B of the same period was substantially energized towards the public sphere, as Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and the O’Jays married strings, keys and strong beats with pointed lyrics linking economics, war and racism; Sly Stone, straddling R&B and the white rock world, fused R&B’s dissatisfied anguish with rock’s retreat into private spaces)

Rock album covers of the time reflect this comfort and scaled-down ambition: Domestic satisfaction, simple pleasures, and the satin armor of “rock ‘n’ roll royalty” were about as far as artists were comfortable going in defining themselves in the aftermath of Altamont, the quagmire of the Vietnam war, the failure to change the world, the tangled political corruption that became known as Watergate, and the proliferation of good drugs and long tours. Safety seemed to be the word of the day following so many months of risk; John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is a notable exception.

Prior to Blood on the Tracks. Dylan himself was showing few signs of returning to anything like his role as Chief Battle Rapper of the1960s. New Morning, the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack, and Planet Waves demonstrated a firm contentedness not to write songs for the world, society, or other people. The general good cheer of the songs cannot be faulted — as it is difficult to find fault in happiness itself — but the music satisfies with good songwriting while being less than actually gripping, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” notwithstanding.

Dylan wouldn’t be looking back, however. The release of Blood on the Tracks wouldn’t provide a “return to form” with protest material suitable for the ’70s, or an updated take on Bringing it All Back Home or Blonde on Blonde‘s bottomless poetic vamps (Patti Smith’s 1975 debut Horses could capably handle that).

If much of the first half of the decade was marked by songs full of a passive self-centeredness balanced by communal responsibility for maintaining good and peaceful vibes, Dylan unleashed with Blood on the Tracks a pronounced and articulate self-centeredness that foregrounded needs and feelings, positive or negative, while in the process starkly implicating both speaker and other.

On Blood on the Tracks, no ambiguous “better days ahead” for love’s victims were as important as the articulation of hard truth about what happened, and who stood where. And settling scores. The battle rapper comes back to stand for himself, which has always been the rapper’s only job: Think of the sharp dismissal of the person “blowing every time you move your mouth” in “Idiot Wind “.

Blood on the Tracks breaks with prevailing rock trends because it adopts a personal point of view as arresting as any big idea Dylan had ever sung about. It’s not an album about sadness. It’s an album about clarity. It fully shakes off the ’60s, foreshadowing, for better or for worse, the more intense self-seeking to come in the latter half of the decade, whether in disco, punk, or Dylan’s religious work.

The cover, tasked with representing this for purposes of commerce, fails miserably. At the end of the day, though, no one should care. I don’t care. The music itself is too good, and who cares about the cover as long as it helps me identify the record in the stacks? But it does fail as a visualization of the music within, while also representing quite well the distinct lack of compelling point of view pervading the rest of rock at that particular moment.

In this regard, the cover of Blood on the Tracks, if you’d never heard the music within, serves as a decoy: The cover artwork provides cover for dramatic change. The book, or the music in this case, decisively judges the cover, and finds it wanting.