Dylan's 'Blood on the Tracks': Outgrowing the Grown-Up Album
A mature, self-indulgent album can make or break a career, drawing the line between over-indulgence and critical re-discovery.
Often regarded as both a great artistic leap forward for Dylan and a return to his former glories, Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks is to be found at or near the summit of a great many critical "Best Of" lists: Best of the 70s, Best Rock Album of the Last 50 Years, Best Breakup Album, Best Singer-Songwriter Album, even Best Bob Dylan Album.
The combination of Dylan's forceful, direct language with the perception that the album's content was directly informed by Dylan's marital troubles at the time of its making have contributed to the collective view that Blood on the Tracks is his most "personal" album, an unprecedented look inside the man behind the artist without constructs, without undue allegory, without the outsider's eye that characterized his earlier work.
A sharp break from his past, Dylan's new approach with Tracks indicated that he was evolving, maturing as an artist and as a person, and inviting his audience to witness the process.
"Dylan has learned to look back and he is growing gracefully," wrote Ben Fong-Torres in Rolling Stone upon the album's release in 1975.
Should Blood on the Tracks be considered Bob Dylan's "Grown-Up" album? Is it one of the first or best "Grown Up" albums of all-time, serving as a template for countless artists in the creation of highly confessional, yet commercially successful, musical statements? Further, just what is a Grown-up Album?
Grown-Up Albums exert a lot of influence on the record-buying public. Why are they so compelling? As a concept, these albums are not an enjoyable-sounding proposition: the artists are concerned with serious topics like death, loss, heartbreak, war, the maturation process, politics, and the ever-suffering nature of the human condition
Often these recordings are about the abstract concept of love, but they explore the multi-faceted, conflicting experiences one encounters when in and out of it, not just the smiles-and-butterflies or endless-nights-of-passion part.
Overall, the content on Grown-Up Albums is thematically united, which can make for an intense listening experience; these are topics that have personal relevance to the artist, which lead the listener to believe we've been given access to the artist's innermost thoughts. Our voyeuristic lust for this information make these albums the subject of intense speculation: we are interested in them both as a product of some hidden change, trauma, or event and for the change that is evidenced in the work itself.
A mature, self-indulgent album (aka Grown-Up Album) can make or break a career, drawing the line between over-indulgence and critical re-discovery.
Grown-Up albums tend to be highly specific to the artist's personal situation, with the best ones managing to connect with a wide audience via an element of constructed beauty -- melody or "catchiness" in musical terms -- in spite of a heavy, even depressing, subject. Think of a film like Schindler's List or, more recently, Green Day's album American Idiot. The visual and aural allure of these works allow difficult subjects to resonate more deeply with the listener and elevates our perception of them to greatness. The art of the material takes a fresh, sideways approach to a topic we may be unable to connect with otherwise. By 2004, many were tired of hearing about the Iraq war, but American Idiot was still a smash and has sold over 14 million copies to date.
We love Grown Up albums even more when they represent a striking departure from our expectations, giving us a fresh reason to investigate the artist's work. No matter how much we want our artists to endlessly play the hits or create new material based on the good old days, it seems there's always room to praise a successful radical change or evolution from the past.
In 1999 Beck Hansen released Midnite Vultures, (which he once dubbed a "dumb party album") heavily influenced by 1970s dance music; the thematic album was a send-up of nightclub culture with evocative and provocative lyrical stylization: "We like the girls with the cellophane chests" and "Coquettes bitch slap you so polite."
Up to Midnite Vultures, each new Beck album maintained a distinct voice, his records were mostly "party" albums, full of upbeat, whimsical, idiosyncratic sounds and words; good, but after almost a decade he was in serious danger of becoming typecast. On top of that everyone kept waiting for the next Odelay.
In 2002 Beck quietly created and released Sea Change, reportedly influenced by a devastating break-up with a longtime girlfriend.
Sea Change is an album of slow, relatively spare songs with clear and direct language that dares not hide its message under layers of sonic wizardry and teenage lingo. "These days I barely get by. I don't even try" Beck sings over minimal acoustic guitar and stately piano. The public and critical reaction was quick -- a sharp left turn from the ditch he'd been headed for -- and praised as one of the best albums of the year.
In his five-star review for Rolling Stone David Fricke called Sea Change "an entire album of spectacular suffering" and proclaimed it "the best album Beck has ever made, and it sounds like he's paid dearly for it." Beck had grown up, and elevated further into the realm of serious artist. It was not the first example of this type of work.
The late 1960s and 1970s were ground zero for Grown Up albums. Many of the important artists of the day were literally growing up and releasing music during their transition to emotional adulthood. As the record-buying public grew into adults, so did these artists, and the content of their releases predicted and reflected the change in their audience.
Closely in step with the times, the success of works such as John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, Joni Mitchell's Blue and Marvin Gaye's What's Going On both facilitated and was caused by a one-way communication between artist and audience: "I've got to tell you something" fused with waves of seductive melodies and alternately beautiful, poetic or universally accessible language.
Which brings us back home to Bob Dylan. As he had done with folk-infused, Guthrie-inspired protest songs in the early 1960s and "folk-rock" in the mid-'60s, with the release of Blood on the Tracks in 1975 Dylan put an outsider twist on the Grown Up Album. Unlike Sea Change, this was not musical sea change from Dylan's previous efforts, as Ben Fong-Torres noted when he wrote, "This is no new morning -- there are surprisingly many old lines and motifs -- but, still, what a writer and what a reader. The old voice, back on some tracks, is as anxious and convincing as ever."
It may be true that Blood on the Tracks is Dylan's most personal album, given the directness of the language and the subject of the work: love. Unlike most Grown Up Albums, however, we don't come any closer to knowing the man behind the work through experiencing the art.