I’ve been (slowly) blogging an album-by album review of my favorite Bob Dylan albums. So far we’ve had Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A’ Changin, Another Side of Bob Dylan</em>, and Bringing It All Back Home, and Highway 61 Revisited. Which brings us now to what many regard as the jewel in the crown, Blonde on Blonde.
Blonde on Blonde is where the rubber hits the road. It’s the third album of the transcendent trio that includes Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. It decidedly ups the ante on the album that came before it, as each of those two albums did. And it’s the last album before the motorcycle accident that marked a decisive break in both his music and his public person.
So, all that myth and legend aside, how well does it actually stand up? Really freaking well! The 14 tracks here have a lyrical richness and stunning musical diversity that by and large immunizes the whole from sounding dated even after 43 years.
I often think of the opener, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” as kind of a one-joke novelty that loses its appeal after the shock of “everybody must get stoned” fades, and it’s surely pretty faded by now. That being said, it has a kind of driving stomping rhythm that won me over on this latest listen. This feeling flows into the thick rumbling blues of the next track “Pledging my Time”. “Visions of Johanna” then takes you somewhere entirely beyond, with it’s poetic paean delivered with a world-weary voice and slowly rising tempo of its ringing electric background. Here we the true flowering of an artistic vision, with Dylan adding self-reflection of his own part in the mess and a lovelorn vulnerability to the kind of bitter love song he had long ago mastered.
This song gets inside you and lingers, which could just be a lucky accident, except that it happens again on the next track “One of Us Must Know”. He tries to take himself off the hook by noting that he didn’t mean to do (her?) any harm, and that he was just doing what he was supposed to do, but the underlying melancholy of the song leavens the argument. Similarly, on “I Want You” he’s proud of being put down for not thinking about love, except the line is delivered in the midst of three minutes of yearning wooing of the object of his affection.
And then for something completely different there’s the next two songs… “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” is one of several songs on the album that is called surrealist in its streaming imagery. And so it is on one level, but I think it’s plain enough on another as a portrayal of the derangement of being on the overboard train of fame in the mid-60s, a world where after mixing Texas medicine and railroad gin: It strangled up my mind/ An’ now people just get uglier/An’ I have no sense of time Followed by the ultimate reincarnation blues: Here I sit so patiently/ Waiting to find out what price/ You have to pay to get out of/ Going through all these things twice
“Leopard-skin Pill Box Hat” takes us on an equally bizarre romp, accompanied by ringing electric blues. We’re then back to a familiar misogynist and snide Dylan on “Just Like a Woman” and “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”, but you have to wonder if both aren’t symbols of a larger disillusionment, foreshadowing the break he was about to take from music. Witness: your long-time curse hurts/ But what’s worse/ Is this pain in here/ I can’t stay in here/ Ain’t it clear that–/ I just can’t fit/ Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit And: I’m gonna let you pass/ And I’ll go last./ Then time will tell just who fell/ And who’s been left behind/ When you go your way and I go mine
Following this, “Temporary Like Achilles” slows us down and “Absolutely Sweet Marie” speeds us up in territory more obviously surreal and less obviously personal, but both continue a theme of wanting to drop out of a game the protagonist no longer feels like playing. “4th Time Around” then veers into territory where music and vocals almost achingly melancholy and romantic back lyrics that are alternately tongue-in-cheek and vulnerable. As if to shake the mood, “Obviously 5 Believers” launches into rapid blues rock, but this proves to be kind of a ringer, because the album’s finale “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is the most disarmed and unabashed love song that Dylan had written up to this point. It’s slow saunter and profusion of cowboy and western imagery is also a prequel of the musical and lyrical space Dylan will be in a year and a half later when John Wesley Harding is released.
Whatever the truth or not of the seriousness of the motorcycle accident that sidelined him for this period, if nothing else he’d earned a break. From his eponymous debut in 1962 through Blonde on Blonde, Dylan had released 7 albums in a roughly four-year space, progressing from largely-derivative eager young folkie to massively talented pop-rock icon. To paraphrase Passover, if he had stopped there, it would have been enough. But as we’ll see next, how bountiful that he did not…