I left campus the other night around rush hour, a time when it’s nearly impossible (and always miserable) to push onto the Green Line. I’d spent the day grinding on a poetry portfolio, which I’d just slipped under my workshop professor’s door, and I felt primed for a walk. I plugged in my earbuds, pressed play on Blood on the Tracks, and began listening to the album that motivated this project to begin with.
Sometimes when I’m walking through the city, I like to play a game. I’ll stand at the curb until a walk signal comes on, then I’ll go whichever way the signal leads me. Sometimes this exercise takes me in circles, and I try to welcome the frustration of retracing my steps as a practice in acceptance. For this album, the circles have come round again, echoing what came before. The songs tell stories, much like the earlier folk albums; the material is deeply personal, a mode that’s been ramping up since the polemical The Times They Are A-Changin’. The music is layered, textured, gleaning from the Americana modes of the previous several albums (rock, folk, country, western, blues). And here, for the first time since Blonde on Blonde each and every song is fully fleshed, deeply articulated, no stories going unresolved, no characters left unchanged. If we can agree that Dylan has his hands deep in the American musical mythos, then with Blood on the Tracks, he is patiently and thoroughly working through the molding clay.
The album rolls out smoothly, slowly, Dylan neither rushing nor seeming to have anything to prove. Whereas Alec questions whether “Tangled Up in Blue” is a real song—finding its variations, as it does, with what some might feel is a janky rhythm and a forced, senseless refrain—I can only perceive it as a tour-de-force of narrative rhythm and blues. “There was music in the cafes at night / and revolution in the air.” It’s Beat culture reimagined by a man in his mid-30’s, a man who’s seen enough to know no matter where we travel, idealized love remains just out of hand.
The second track, “Simple Twist of Fate” evinces a poetry not heard from Dylan in years. The echo effect on the vocals doubles the sense of aged folklore. Even the shifting pronouns show a transference, a multiplicity reaching through space, time, and identity. The same can be said for the rising, sustaining vocals of “You’re a Big Girl Now,” and “If You See Her, Say Hello,” and “Shelter from the Storm.” “Idiot Wind” might be the most controversial track here. Its refrain about the “idiot wind” blowing through every element of these characters’ lives circles back to, “We are idiots babe / it’s a wonder that we still know how to breathe.” Not only is this track full of anger and venom (this is a separation album, after all), but just the phrase “idiot wind” feels somewhat bulky, inexact. By giving the song the benefit of the doubt, though, the refrain becomes a metaphor for prior expressions of love. At its core, “Idiot Wind” is a condemnation of naïveté, his own and his lover’s. It’s a proclamation of gained wisdom and determination.
Dylan is back, y’all. And he ain’t laying down no more.
The walking man spat me out around Berklee College of Music, where hirsute musicians flood the sidewalks, strutting and singing to themselves. I wondered what they knew of Dylan. I wondered if they recognized the circles coming around again.