September 20, 2002

As far as Dylan reviews go, this is one of the best I've read -- it doesn't strive too hard to draw out Social Importance or Deeper Meaning (and deeper meaning is not inherently bad, but "meaning" can also be a very superficial thing, and it's often just a small part of the larger musical picture), it goes for Feeling. Personal association, yeah, there's a little of that, but it's really about the way the album strikes a chord with the reviewer, the way the lyrics fuck with his head, invite him to a clandestine mug-raiser with jokers and jacks of hearts, reach out a veiny old hand for support, etc. My Blood on the Tracks review was good -- this one's better. An excerpt:

Contrary to what we often demand from art and artists, Blood on the Tracks hardly provides any significant insight into the life of Bob Dylan. I know a thing or two about his story, as I have been an astute reader of his numerous biographies, but there is scarcely anything in Blood on the Tracks that smacks of autobiography. From the first-person narrative position, this is an album of tales that are told in song by a motley cast of fools, drifters, infidels, cuckolds, criminals, lovers, and dreamers. For all I know, Bob Dylan could be any number of these characters or none of them at all. But if there is any place in which Bob Dylan emerges as himself in Blood on the Tracks, he is found in the opening lines of "Shelter from the Storm": "'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood / When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud / I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form". That is, if he emerges at all, it is only for this brief moment as the artist, the creator as the creature from the wilderness who is "void of form". Real life and real heartbreak are doubtlessly the original impetuses for the creation of the album, yet Blood on the Tracks ultimately achieves its singular universal greatness by stripping away the layers of specific and local pain (of the singer and the songwriter Dylan) that have been accumulated from private experience and by connecting these loose foci along the colossal and timeless themes of Love and Loss. In this imaginary journey from real life to that of art, Blood on the Tracks creates and refashions an unworldly world that is full of wonder, treachery, buffoonery, mystery, and reward; in short, the human condition.

And throughout Blood on the Tracks, Dylan keeps us constantly on our guard. Sometimes, as in "Simple Twist of Fate," the narrative lapses from its third person perspective to the first person: "They walked along by the old canal / A little confused, I remember well". Or, as in "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts", Dylan floods the story with a ceaseless parade of characters and curiosities for there to be just one meaningful appropriation. And what is the significance of the rooster crowing in "Meet Me in the Morning"? There is no answer given but like the great blues tunes, the song raises this question for itself: "Little rooster crowin' / There must be something on his mind". Even the seemingly straightforward tales provide elusive details of their very nature. Is "Simple Twist of Fate" about a single titanic love affair or is it a couched confession of a night of infidelity? In "If You See Her, Say Hello", the real reason for the breakup with the lover (whose fault was it, really?) is stated rather offhandedly: "We had a falling-out, like lovers often will". Everything is a little upside down, indeed.