You’re down on your luck. Overexposure and an underwhelming reception feel like a dagger between your ribs. A messy conflict with your record label, resulting in the unwanted release of your album, has deepened the incision to the knife’s handle. Accusations of being past your prime have twisted the blade. And your separation from your wife has wrested it from your body, leaving a gaping wound in its place.
Through your anguish and injury, you limp home like injured game, waiting for time to heal you. As you make your somber retreat, your heavy gait leaves footprints in the dirt, your open wounds dripping a crimson liquid on those impressions. A day from now, a stranger seeing your path won’t know who you are, where you’re going, or why you’re hurt. But they will know that you’re in pain. They will see the blood on the tracks.
The sound of Bob Dylan’s 1975 masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks, deviated from the progression of his career. Dylan had long been known for his synthesis of folk and rock, infusing more and more amped-up electricity into his music throughout the 1960s. But Blood on the Tracks was as stripped down as his earliest, most acoustic album, driven by dexterous, sensitive guitar-playing and accented with soft, spare percussion. Even at its most exhilarating it feels muted. On the surface, the album is exciting, entertaining, and enthralling—much like Dylan’s life. Also like Dylan’s life, however, a closer look reveals a glum haze enveloping it, making it hard—if not wrong—to enjoy.
Blood on the Tracks is undeniably a sad album. But the blistering melancholy pulsing through it only sets in towards the album’s end. The first seven tracks appear innocent or even, at times, hopeful. “Tangled Up in Blue,” the opener and one of Dylan’s most famous tracks, presents itself as a meandering chronicle of a romantic entanglement. “Idiot Wind” is a funny, ridiculous track in which Dylan finds someone so insufferably stupid that “it’s a wonder that [they] still know how to breathe.” “Meet Me in the Morning” is an earnest plea to see a love interest at dawn. This first part of the album is unabashedly poetic, romantic, and optimistic. But then it turns to blood.
The final three tracks not only darken the album’s tone, but also reveal a sadder core behind the crust of the record’s first two thirds. The distance that made reunions so serendipitous on “Tangled Up in Blue” now tortures him on “If You See Her, Say Hello.” The petty bitterness that fueled his condescension on “Idiot Wind” turns inward leading to the album’s simplest (but most despondent) song, “Buckets of Rain.” And the adorable giddiness on “Meet Me in the Morning” turns to the desperate longing for the memory of being enraptured by her attention on “Shelter from the Storm.” On the last track he admits that, including the idiocy, including the desperation, “everything about you is bringing me misery.”
There have been innumerable albums that aim to express the sorrow of a breakup. Some employ evocative soundscapes to convey the dejection of losing someone, others use heart-wrenching lyrics to demonstrate their despondency. Blood on the Tracks, though, does not restrict itself to the loss nor the sadness that surrounds it. It follows the arc of a relationship, indulging honestly in the goodness of the good and the badness of the bad. The positivity at the onset of the relationship—the wonder of a new endeavor, the excitement of being with someone—is untainted by its ultimate failure. Dylan documents his emotional struggle with journalistic objectivity, not letting hindsight cast a shadow over his recount of the pleasant memories.
Blood on the Tracks is not a breakup album; it is a relationship album that ends in a breakup. Upon first listen, we don’t know where the journey will end up, which enables us to ride the emotional rollercoaster with Dylan, basking in the exhilarating inclines and sulking in the sorrowful declines. But once the final note rings, something has irreversibly changed. “Tangled Up in Blue” now seems naïvely quixotic, “Idiot Wind” like a pathetic, helpless “fuck you.” It’s truly a wonder that Dylan, having lived through these experiences first-hand, was able to write them with such detachment. If anything, it’s a wonder that he still knows how to breathe.