Blood on the Tracks: Is it really as good as we think it is?

(originally published September 28, 2012)

It’s one of Bob Dylan’s most revered albums, and is usually placed right up there with everything leading up to and including Blonde On Blonde. The biggest cliche we hear from nearly every critic reviewing a new Dylan album is “it’s his best since Blood On The Tracks.” And we all know that Blood On The Tracks is his best album since Blonde On Blonde.

Or is it?

Not everyone agrees with that, but the majority never even so much as questions that status. They treat it like sacrilege. And anyone who knows me, knows I’m a Dylan freak. So I’m gonna question it.

I think Blood On The Tracks is too revered for its own good, and every other great Dylan album’s own good as well (post-Blood, of course). I don’t dare say “overrated,” because the first four songs alone make it the masterpiece it is. Still, nobody seems to consider the masterpiece it isn’t. “Meet Me in the Morning” and “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” tear a hole in the middle of the album that damn near makes you ask “What album is this supposed to be again?”

“Buckets of Rain” doesn’t reach the perfection of the first four tracks either, although “Shelter From the Storm” does, which really is the only song on side two worthy of the first four. I mention those first four songs because if Blood on the Tracks as an album is as great as people say/think it is, it’s because of those first four songs. How do we end up with “Meet Me in the Morning” following the brilliance of side one?  And “If You See Her Say Hello,” while carrying some great lines, would have been a better song if he had sung it in his “Lay Lady Lay” voice and threw it on Nashville Skyline.  Not realistic though because the song obviously was not written yet.

Maybe it’s just me, but there are two “okay”/”good” songs (“Buckets of Rain,” “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome,”)…one boring mediocre piece of filler (“Meet Me in the Morning,”)…and one diabolical piece of crap (“Lily”). That hardly makes for a masterpiece let alone a great album. Still, it manages to get away with that reputation. I know people like those songs, and a case can be made for any of them, but none of them are ever mentioned in relation to the album’s greatness, nor should they be.

While it seems like I’m trashing Blood, I’m really not. Again, “Tangled” through “Idiot Wind” allow the album its status as far as I’m concerned… but it’s the whole “It’s his best album since Blood on the Tracks” cliche that we’ve been hearing a few times each decade since Slow Train Coming, which makes me more and more vocal with each new album about how there are several better albums than Blood…namely Oh Mercy and Love and Theft, both of which are masterful from beginning to end. Granted, Oh Mercy has the throwaway “Everything’s Broken,” but when you have “Most of the Time,” “What Was it You Wanted,” “Ring them Bells,” “What Good am I,” “Man in the Long Black Coat,” and “Shooting Star” all on the same album, “Everything’s Broken” is easily forgiven. None of those really touch Blood‘s first four songs…well, a few are as good, but the album itself is much more consistent and cohesive than Blood On The Tracks ever was. That’s mainly because Dylan recorded Blood in two different cities, three months apart, and with two different groups of musicians. The truth is there are really two different albums going on in there, where anything magical that starts to happen on side one is rudely interrupted by inferior songs, and “Shelter” aside, it barely recovers. The songs I questioned above, mainly “Meet Me in the Morning” and “Lily” are only two songs, but they severely ruin the mood established on the first side, and should have either been left off, placed on another album, or left for Biograph.

“Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “You’re a Big Girl Now,” “Idiot Wind,” and “Shelter From the Storm” are beyond masterful and beyond perfect. Could it be that Bob only had five masterpieces and had to fill out the rest with lesser material? Not lesser material in the sense that “Pledgin My Time” is less than “Visions of Johanna,” but far lesser material?  Are those five songs perfect and the rest just great?  Good?  Mediocre?  Or does that other material on the album in anyone’s eyes or ears even touch those five songs? Is the album really the untouchable masterpiece that so many Dylan fans and critics make it out to be?

If you genuinely love every song on Blood, great. Then this excludes you. But I feel people have been too loyal to it while staying in denial of it. It’s kind of like knowing mobsters personally once they’ve gotten into your life…you love them or pretend to love them, but you also fear crossing them. All the Dylan freaks I know are shit scared of Blood on the Tracks, and they act as if the album is gonna strike them down with wrath and vengeance if they dare question how great it really is.   A great album, no question…but its “best post-Blonde On Blonde” status is badly in need of reassessment.

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