On ‘More Blood, More Tracks,’ Familiar Bob Dylan Songs Cut Closer to the BoneThe 14th release in Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series unearths the original sessions for his 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks.” Credit: Barry FeinsteinBy Jon Pareles
Oct. 30, 2018
Bob Dylan had crucial second thoughts just as he was about to release “Blood on the Tracks,” the indelible 1975 album filled with songs of separation, heartache, sorrow, rage and regret. Now it’s getting a revealing close-up. “More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14,” due Friday, unveils all of the initial sessions: the solo, duo and small-group versions of songs that Dylan replaced, for half of the album, with more extroverted full-band recordings. There are an exhaustive deluxe six-CD version with every surviving take and a one-CD compilation of alternate versions of the album’s 10 songs plus one that was omitted, “Up to Me.”
The songs from “Blood on the Tracks” are artfully multifaceted: romances, travelogues, tall tales, parables and possibly memories, all at once. Although it was written and recorded while Dylan’s marriage to the former Sara Lownds was disintegrating — she filed for divorce in 1977
— he later insisted that its songs, including “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Idiot Wind” and “Shelter from the Storm,” were by no means confessional. In “Chronicles: Volume One,”
his elliptical 2004 memoir, he claimed that the lyrics had been inspired by Anton Chekhov short stories.Pages from a Dylan notebook appear in the hardcover book that accompanies the deluxe six-CD version of the set. Credit: Graham S. Haber/The Morgan Library & Museum, via Sony
While making the album and tinkering with lyrics, Dylan pared away obvious references to his own career. He set aside “Up to Me,” a song about artistic ambition versus small-mindedness, and he replaced lines from an early take of “Idiot Wind” that complained, “Imitators steal me blind.” Regardless of its origins, listeners through the decades have been riveted by the album’s pain and longing; it’s one of Dylan’s masterpieces.
The album Dylan had initially planned to release was recorded in four days in September 1974, in the New York City studio where he had made his first albums: A&R Studios, formerly Columbia Studio A. In that familiar setting he recorded solo, with his acoustic guitar and harmonica, and for one session with a band of folk-rooted sidemen, Eric Weissberg and Deliverance. They finished only one song that satisfied Dylan, “Meet Me in the Morning.”
He whittled the band down to just its bassist, Tony Brown, who shadowed Dylan’s idiosyncratic timing with uncanny grace through the remaining sessions, yielding the reflective, almost conspiratorial performances of “Simple Twist of Fate”
and “Buckets of Rain” on the original album, along with the busker’s bounce of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” a song about blissful love that can’t help envisioning its end. Dylan brought in two other studio musicians, Paul Griffin on keyboards and Buddy Cage on pedal steel guitar, to add ghostly overlays.While the lyrics on “Blood on the Tracks” are among Dylan’s most emotional, he has insisted that they are not confessional. Credit: Barry Feinstein
Almost all of the songs were in the same key and performed with a bare minimum of backup. So the original “Blood on the Tracks” would have been nearly as sparse as Dylan’s early 1960s solo recordings and his lean, pointedly ascetic 1967 “John Wesley Harding.”
But while LP jackets were being printed and advance vinyl pressings were sent out, Dylan decided to revisit the songs with a pickup band of local Minneapolis musicians who were hastily assembled during the last week of December 1974. He had rewritten (and improved) some lyrics, and with more musicians in the room and, perhaps, more distance on the songwriting, he delivered the songs more forcefully, facing them outward rather than inward.
When “Blood on the Tracks” was released in January 1975, half of the New York City recordings were replaced with the Minneapolis sessions (although with album covers already printed, that studio band went uncredited). Meanwhile, to give the music a subliminal edge, Dylan had the tracks sped up by 2 to 3 percent, shortening the running times by a few seconds and very slightly raising the pitch. Insiders who had heard the original album mourned what they considered to be a push toward pop. A handful of songs from the New York sessions that trickled out on Dylan’s first Bootleg Series compilations suggested they had a point.
“More Blood, More Tracks,” strips away any gloss. In the six-CD package, the takes that appeared on the original album are returned to accurate speed and mixed more austerely, with considerably less reverb around Dylan’s voice and guitar and different balances on band tracks. (The six CDs include all the takes recorded in New York; there are no surviving outtakes from the Minneapolis sessions, but the master tapes are remixed.) The pricey full package also includes a hardcover volume featuring a trove of Dylan lore: a page-by-page reproduction of a spiral notebook of lyrics, full of cross-outs and alternatives. The one-CD version is a well-chosen playlist among many that could traverse the New York sessions.
From the beginning, none of the performances on the complete set is tentative or demo-like. Dylan had clearly thought through the songs beforehand, chosen his guitar strategies and decided where the dramatic peaks were. His first performances in the studio were apparently so incandescent that the engineers didn’t pay attention to the sound of his vest buttons clacking against his guitar — the only distraction in his very first take of “Simple Twist of Fate,” which rises from and falls back to a stoic near-whisper, like a startling rumor being passed along.
The New York recordings, solo or close to it, bring out the solitude in the songs: The singer endlessly wandering, bereft of the woman he loved, wondering what could have been different, coming to terms with it all. Stripped of arrangements that have been familiar for decades, Dylan’s voice comes through as more insistent, while the lyrics land more sharply. The complicated storyline of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” becomes more immediately comprehensible in a solo performance. And without the Minneapolis band’s organ crescendos, “Idiot Wind” becomes a more private attack, as much plaint as indictment: “You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above/And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love.”The “Blood on the Tracks” that Dylan had initially planned to release was recorded in four days in September 1974. Credit: Ken Regan
But in the end, Dylan knew best. The Minneapolis versions unleashed the suppressed anger in “Idiot Wind” and brought the momentum of a band to the long quasi-narratives of songs like “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” The New York versions of the songs were monochromatic and slightly forbidding, and they played down Dylan’s dry humor: “She was married when they first met, soon to be divorced/He helped her out of a jam, I guess, But he used a little too much force,” he sang in early versions of “Tangled Up in Blue,” a song in which he continues to juggle pronouns (I/he) and personae.
The Minneapolis arrangement of “Tangled Up in Blue” that opens “Blood on the Tracks” — switched to first-person, transposed to a higher key and ornamented with glimmering guitar strumming — doesn’t telegraph the troubles to come. Instead, it entices an unsuspecting listener into the album’s emotional labyrinths.
Dylan was right the first time about his decision to re-record half of “Blood on the Tracks.” But years later, it’s fascinating and illuminating to hear what might have been.