It's probably only fair to admit that I missed out on the early rise to notoriety of Bob Dylan. I was seven years old when his debut was released, and still only eleven by the time Blonde On Blonde (now my second favorite Dylan album) came our way. My earliest years discovering rock were dominated by textural and progressive-ish bands on the one hand and by early hard rockers on the other, and all of my "folkie leanings" back then were eaten up by Simon and Garfunkel. It was already the early seventies when I got around to giving proper homage to the Dylans, Mitchells and Cohens of the world; needless to say, I had a lot of catching up to do. Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid was the first "new" Dylan album I paid attention to while it was still new, followed by Dylan and Planet Waves. Considering his already-glimmering legacy to that point, it was probably the worst possible time to jump on the Dylan train; I doubt I'm alone in thinking that those are among the weakest albums he released. I remember a lot of discussions back then among Dylan fans as to whether or not he had any more great albums left in him.
Then... POW! Blood On The Tracks.
I've read so much about the album; the making and re-making of most of the songs, the debates about whether or not it's autobiographical and/or a self confession (Dylan says no, son Jakob says yes, and I'm not about to spar with either one of them), plenty of long discussions about "Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts," and in truth, very little of that ever played into my passion for this record. At the core of it, these are simply beautiful songs, both sonically and lyrically. It's easy enough (and warranted) to talk about Dylan the poet; very few in history and even fewer in music history have been able to wring so much emotion and imagery out of the English language. Blood was the album that made me aware of Dylan's abilities as a tunesmith; the melodies throughout the album are haunting for their beauty and simplicity. For me, one of the things that makes this such an effective album is that the songs work so perfectly together as a whole - it's an incredibly silky flow from track to track - and yet stand equally well on their own as individual songs. The consistency of the album is even more interesting when considering it was recorded in two different sessions a couple of months apart in two different cities (New York in September, 1974 and then Minneapolis in December).
Several of my all-time fave Dylan songs are contained here. The album's opener, "Tangled Up In Blue," is one of those perfect Dylan classics, every bit as good a poem as it is a song, and the lyrics are a permanent part of my memory now. "Idiot Wind" is one of the best vocal performances by anybody ever; that trademark, knowing sneer as he wails, "I-i-i-i-i-idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth..." takes an already great lyric and elevates it to classic. The album's closing tracks, "Shelter From The Storm" and "Buckets Of Rain" almost feel like one song to me; the similarity in analogies and the lilting delivery of the lyrics make this perhaps the best one-two closing punch of any Dylan release.They're two of the tracks I play most often as individual songs outside of an album listen.
Picking my personal highest and lowest points on the album is a cinch. "If You See Her, Say Hello" is not only my favorite Dylan song, it's one of my favorite songs ever, period. The melody is stunningly beautiful and superbly produced, the lyrics completely tear at my heart, and Dylan's vocal on this track is so honest and so sincere that it still makes me hurt to hear him sing it... even after having heard it a thousand times. Conversely, "Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts" is the only song on the album I'm not always completely overwhelmed with. It's probably the most often discussed song from the album, and I think that had a little something to do with making it my least favorite track here; I honestly don't care who the characters are supposed to represent, and if I'm not completely in the mood to hear it, it's as close to tedious as the album ever gets. All that said... it's still a stunner of an epic, and to have to be that nitpicky about a track to even find a hint of something negative to say only speaks again as to the brilliance of this release.
Perhaps the greatest factor in the legacy of this album is the absolute timelessness of the themes. It matters not whether it is or is not about Dylan and his life and family; the heartbreak, the hurt, the longing, the musing as to the whys and hows of relationships ending... these are all topics common to everyone everywhere. They're the ultimate fodder for a master of words at the top of his game, and whatever the inspiration was for these songs, Bob Dylan nailed them as nobody else could. It's a perfect record.