Friday, April 27, 2012

Blood on the Tracks

One of the great personal transitional pieces of music ever released is Bob Dylan’s 1975 Blood on the Tracks. No major relevation there, I'm sure. It's great for a number of reasons.

But it's transitional in terms of where his life was at the time, more than where his music was going. It stands atop a very select mountain of albums that feature an older, mature rock-n-roll figure examining his life and relationships as an adult. Only Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love—and perhaps Paul Simon’s Graceland, for slightly different reasons—are its equal.

Dylan wrote Blood on the Tracks for a very specific reason—he had gotten divorced and needed to say goodbye to that part of his life. The album ranged from straight-ahead narrative (“Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Shelter From the Storm”) to bitterness (“Idiot Wind”) to forlorn fare-thee-wells (“If You See Her, Say Hello,” “Buckets of Rain”). It even had Dylan’s characteristic oddball humor (if somewhat misplaced) with “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.”

Telling the story of a marriage’s end has got to be as difficult an assignment with which a writer/musician can task himself. Yet Dylan does it with equal parts affection and resignation, with a touch of resentment but also an appreciation for what they once had.

Surely it couldn't have been easy, but it had to be done. And the fact that he famously scrapped a fully recorded Blood on the Tracks album in 1974 and redid it in the form we know it now only speaks to how hard it must have been. That’s why the album was written and recorded—a 35-year-old Dylan was examining his failed marriage as only an adult can, looking back on it and looking forward to a mysterious future.

He stepped away from his louder (and very impressive) work with The Band and returned largely to the guitar/harmonica approach that made him famous. The results were stunning in 1975, and remain so 37 years later.

But the message has proven far more universal than just one man getting divorced. Blood on the Tracks is a story of transition and change, of facing the unknown that lies ahead. And it's broad enough to be applied to many such situations.

As an example, when I was changing jobs in late 2006 and the anxiety for what I would do next was building, I listened to Blood on the Tracks just about every day. I needed to hear these songs as a way of reassuring me that change could be productive, that goodbyes did not mean disaster and ruin. I can’t exactly explain why, but it helped.

Here’s the song that helped more than any – the wonderful “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” right smack in the mddle of the album.

It’s a countrified shuffle with an upbeat melody and at under three minutes, it’s the shortest song on the album. But it also, more than any, finds optimism in moving in and remains free of regret. Lines like:
I could stay with you forever
And never realize the time
You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m doing
Staying far behind without you
Reason to Believe compadre Scott once perfectly described Tunnel of Love as being “an album written by an adult for adults.” Blood on the Tracks is the same way. It stands up and faces the challenges head on, whatever they may be and however difficult they may prove. It realizes that the close of one chapter doesn’t mean an absolute end, and it acknowledges that it’s still okay to look back with loving eyes.

“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” does just that, serving as an encapsulation of everything magical about the Blood on the Tracks album in its final lines.
I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go
It’s goodbye. But yesterday is still real. And so is tomorrow.

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