Outgrowing the Grown-Up Album: Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’

Bob Dylan
Blood on the Tracks

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.

Grown Up Albums are contextual dead-ends…

Grown Up Albums are contextual dead-ends; they document a specific moment in time, or maybe a “moment in mind”. Once the statement has been released to the world for consumption, the original message, so intensely personal and tied to specific events, is relevant for a finite amount of time. Sure, we connect to the moment — the art in the piece allows us this — but once it stops being pertinent to either the artist or ourselves the connection weakens and we go back to it less and less.

We may never stop appreciating it, but unless the audience or the artist is able to continually generate new ways of connecting to the material it transitions from a living, breathing thing that consistently warrants repeat visits, to a relic tucked away on a shelf to be only sporadically indulged. We appreciate Grown Up Albums in the moment we hear them, but repeated listening diminishes as the material loses relevance. How many times does one watch Schindler’s List after the first viewing? (Its been over two years since I last put on Sea Change, other than to hear it for this article; now that I’m happily married an album of breakup songs doesn’t have the same allure.)

Blood on the Tracks is an anomaly, however: the album actually gains power and relevance to listeners over time. The power of the material is drawn not from the images that Dylan transmits to us one-way, but rather by the filtering of those images through whatever baggage we bring to the work.

Using a seemingly simple set of tools — back-to-basics instrumentation, his talent as a lyricist, and, perhaps most importantly, his skills as a vocal performer — Dylan creates a playing field on which listeners can easily make an endless stream of connections, constantly building up new, pertinent ideas and tearing down old, obsolete ones as necessary with each listen.

The sessions for the album took place in two distinct chunks, with different musicians in different cities, yet the ubiquity of the instruments: stringed instruments, keyboards, plus drums and harmonica, unify the sound across the whole. Only those paying close attention can tell the difference between the New York and Minnesota sessions. These arrangements are universal (and comfortable) to any folk/pop/rock music listener. Unlike much of Dylan’s past work, there is little here musically that challenges listeners (grates, his detractors would say). Instead, the arrangements, combined with some of Dylan’s most simple, memorable melodies, reach out to draw listeners in. And here’s where the deception starts: how could the creator of that sadly sweet tune forming the backbone of “A Simple Twist of Fate” not be showing us his innermost soul?

Even Dylan’s harmonica solos in “Fate” seem resigned, as if he were playing the instrument with a heavy heart. The playing, the arrangements, and the melodies — it is easy to assume that it was a return of sorts to Dylan’s folk beginnings. If it was truly powerfully informed by the earliest incarnation of his development, one could be led to conclude that it was somehow more authentic to the man than his other work. John Hammond commented after the recording of the New York sessions in 1974, “That’s what the whole album’s about. Bobby went right back the way he was in the early days, and it works.”

The language of Blood on the Tracks, in contrast to Dylan’s mid-60s period, is downright down-home, expressed in an easily-grasped narrative style that purports to offer a clearer view of their creator, a hallmark of the Grown Up album.

Unlike most Grown Up albums, the narratives on Blood on the Tracks are not fastened to one time, place, or even Bob Dylan himself. Rather than being confrontational or divisive, Dylan makes the characters that inhabit the songs easy for listeners to identify with. Excepting Big Jim from “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” and the person “planting stories in the press” in “Idiot Wind” there are almost no villains in these songs other than non-personified concepts: fate, the past, and “careless love”. Even the way Dylan sings the phrase “And though our separ-ay! shun – it pierced me to the heaaart!!” in “If You See Her, Say Hello” seems to hint that he’s more dismayed about the situation than the people that caused it. Compare this with poor Mr. Jones from “Ballad Of A Thin Man” — who wants to be that guy?

Then there’s the use of the pronouns; rather than patently defining the barrier between artist and audience by restricting the language to “I” “me” and “mine,” Dylan mixes it up, sometimes referring to himself and at other times referring to someone else – sometimes even within the same song – inviting us in to play the hero. Consider this verse from “A Simple Twist of Fate”:

“They walked along by the old canal/A little confused, I remember well/And stopped into a strange hotel with a neon burnin’ bright/He felt the heat of the night hit him like a freight train/Moving with a simple twist of fate.”

Taken as a whole the ten tunes on Blood on the Tracks may have the form of a personal journal set to music but function more like a rock Rorschach test, liberating it from the restrictive Grown Up album characterization.

It is Dylan’s vocal performance on Blood on the Tracks that furthers the case of this work being one of his most personal, and influential of future Grown Up albums. Each track has a distinct vocal quality, from wistful on “A Simple Twist of Fate” to pleading on “You’re A Big Girl Now” to cocksure on “Meet Me in the Morning.” These are “real” voices that we accept as authentic because they are more human than Dylan had used in the past. They are not the affected croon of Nashville Skyline, nor the folk apprentice pastiche of Bob Dylan, nor the psychedelic, amphetamine-charged rambler on “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

As with many Grown Up albums, this “new” Dylan voice was heralded as a major shift from his past work, signifying a new level of intimacy and openness. This belief illustrates the ace up Dylan’s sleeve; he’s so adept at constructing a mood with performance that it feels authentic even if it isn’t. His art is such that we project our feelings onto the performance, forcing it to reflect what we need it to, rather than the performance being truly revealing of Dylan himself. As an example, one could interpret the vocal delivery in “Idiot Wind” as a supreme kiss-off to an ex, even concluding that Dylan is singing to/about his wife Sara, or as the singer indicting himself for some failure in life, romantic or otherwise. The charged sneer in Dylan’s singing communicates either righteous, outwardly directed anger or an insecure, inward-facing loathing; it all depends on where the listener is coming from.

The chameleon quality of Blood on the Tracks is what makes the album timeless. In retrospect, this phenomenon is what has drawn people to Dylan throughout his career, and has, much as he may loathe the title, legitimized the label “voice of a generation.” It also removes it from Grown Up album contention. “I can move, and fake. I know some of the tricks and it all applies artistically, not politically or philosophically,” Dylan told People Magazine in 1975.

It is a testament to Dylan’s reach as an artist that we have chosen to repeatedly accept the personas he presents to us while not permitting the same behavior from so many other artists … or at least not the artists that don’t appear to us from the beginning to be obviously flaunting their duplicity (David Bowie, Lady Gaga). Dylan did come dangerously close to losing his audience during his “Christian” phase in the early eighties, but even that has been more or less forgiven by now. What is it with this guy? Is he that interesting? More likely it is that his performances and the material itself are so rich with the potential for interpretation and adoption that our hearts are satisfied while our minds keep hoping that we’re eventually going to be shown the real face behind all those masks.

Blood on the Tracks came tantalizingly close to being that revelation but ultimately was simply another masterful production that went on to influence thousands of future Grown Up albums, even though it wasn’t one in reality; as with much of his work, rather than exhibiting the Grown Up album’s pathway to universal understanding it was actually misunderstood, debated and appreciated in differing, sometimes contradictory manners in its time.

Although his work will forever be a touchstone for singer-songwriters, it’s this album specifically that showed how music inspired by difficult personal circumstances could be warm, engaging, timeless, and artistically and commercially successful all at once. It would be hard to imagine Darkness on the Edge of Town (Bruce Springsteen’s first Grown Up Album of 1978) or even Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours without Blood on the Tracks paving the way. Further, the existence of Blood on the Tracks — and the ideas it put into people’s heads — is at least partly responsible for confessional music withstanding the onslaught of Punk and New Wave in the late 1970s and 1980s when many other “old” types of rock music were considered emotionally, politically, and intellectually obsolete and ineffective. Dylan didn’t intend any of that, of course, he was merely continuing to do what he has always done as an artist: create vs. document. “I don’t care what people expect of me,” Dylan said in 1975. “Doesn’t concern me. I’m doin’ God’s work. That’s all I know.”