In praise of Saint Bob

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Eight or nine years ago, while writing artist profiles for the website I worked for at the time, I penned a particularly sycophantic ode to Bob Dylan.

I don’t remember it word for word, but it was enough to provoke laughter in the office then, and mild shame in me now. But I was late to the Dylan appreciation society – after years of casual listening without ever really understanding the appeal, it took a flight from Prague to the UK and a greatest hits compilation to finally ‘get it’.

While the aforementioned piece was mercifully consigned to history and lost to the virtual Shoreditch skip of hopes and dreams long ago, fortunately I was able to gain some atonement and write a more measured article for Clash a couple of years later on one of Dylan’s many masterpieces. 

In honour of his newly anointed Nobel-prize winning status, this is shamelessly reproduced below.

blood-on-the-tracks-by-bob-dylan

Classic Album: Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks

13 JAN 2010

Bob Dylan’s current purple patch, casting a glorious glow on the twilight of his career, cannot be underestimated. In terms of length, at least, the twelve years that separate ‘Time Out Of Mind’ and ‘Christmas In The Heart’ represent the longest period of near-universal praise for Dylan releases. That may only represent five albums (between 1962 and 1974 he released fourteen) but Bobby is no young buck anymore.

This longevity and ever-increasing body of work makes it easy to disregard his wilderness years – where critics and fans deserted him, he lost interest in performing and (apparently) forgot how write songs for a time. It is from these periods that the die-hards pick at the scraps, clutching their worn copies of ‘Down In The Groove’ with a relish that only obscurity can manifest.

There was a time when these career troughs represented much more than a rich vein of curious gems. After the unmitigated triumph of ‘Blonde On Blonde’ and its glorious predecessors, the period after his 1966 motorcycle accident was an unhappy time, in all areas of his life and career. For the first time, his star was on a downward trajectory, “as a matter of fact, the wheels have stopped” as he would sing on ‘Idiot Wind’.

Hindsight may treat the likes of ‘Planet Waves’ and ‘New Morning’ kindly, but at the time they were viewed as obtuse and inaccessible for the fans and critics who had lauded his every move just a few years before. Add to this the infamously awful ‘Self Portrait’, the label-obligation ‘Dylan’ and a refusal to tour for eight years, and you begin to understand the collective apathy directed towards Bob in the early 1970s.

If that’s not enough, consider the breakdown of Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lowndes, which had borne four children and some of his greatest love songs, and the fact that when it came to recording his fifteenth album he decided to scrap and re-record half of the songs a month before release. From this tumultuous birth, ‘Blood On The Tracks’ has gone down in history as his most personal and harrowing collection of songs, but is the master of mystique really offering an insight into his intimate affairs?

There are shreds of Dylan’s inner torment here, especially in the two tracks that deal most explicitly with the subject of separation, ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ and ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’. The former may include the plea “I can change I swear” and speak of “a pain that stops and starts, like a corkscrew to my heart”, yet its tone is retrospective rather than a contemporaneous plea. The narrator still knows that he can find his girl, but she’ll be “in somebody’s room”. At times, you feel that he prefers it that way.

To casually label this as a ‘break-up’ record is to completely miss its point. Albums of that ilk usually end up dissolving into a pool of self-pity, loathing and bitterness, yet there is so much more at work here. ‘Blood…’ contains its fair share of heartbreak, pleading and snarling vitriol (Bob has rarely sounded angrier than on ‘Idiot Wind’), but there are also heavy helpings of whimsy, humour and optimism. Dylan flits between tenses and perspectives at will, with a cast of characters including transients, young lovers, loose women, criminals, businessmen and fools. Dylan may be none, one or all of these for all we know. If this is an attempt to share his innermost personal emotions, it’s a pretty oblique effort.

Take the flitting viewpoints and tenses of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ and ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’, songs that meander through time and characters at will, never truly identifying its subjects or storyteller. Bob is everywhere and nowhere across this album; raconteur, protagonist and casual observer. If he’s the one begging his lover for a second chance, is he also the one working on fishing boats in Delacroix, inheriting a million bucks and struggling through barbed wire? In the literal sense, of course not, but Bob pulls the strings of these various characters – occasionally making a cameo – but mostly hovering imperiously over the storylines.

Despite the contentious inspiration, the occasionally plodding rhythms and the odd banal, clichéd lyric, ‘Blood…’ benefits from its flaws as much as its strengths, and is a ‘complete’ album in the way that ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, ‘The Freewheelin…’ and even ‘Blonde On Blonde’ are not. As he croons on lullaby-like closer ‘Buckets Of Rain’, “You do what you must do, and you do it well”. Dylan has rarely been better, before or since.

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