More Blood, More Tracks provides the definitive work on an essential album.
One of pop music’s greatest works, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks carries with its brilliant songs a strange recording history. Dylan recorded mostly acoustic, folksy versions late in 1974 in New York City. The album seemed to be finished when, only a few weeks before its release, Dylan redid half the songs with a full band in Minnesota. The distinct sounds cohered as the songwriter built a world of emotional and narrative complexity, one that’s either a stunning bit of confessional art or a sequence of tightly structured dramatic monologues. The album remains deeply puzzling and evocative, even 45 years later, the backstory only adding to the complexity of the songs themselves.
Now the Bootleg Series continues with its fourteenth volume, More Blood, More Tracks, which captures the complete New York recording sessions as well as remixed masters from the Minnesota material. Six discs containing various takes of just thirteen songs (ten from the album plus unused numbers) may not sound like the most riveting material, but the set provides revelation not only into Dylan’s process – the most obvious import of the chronologically collected music – but also into the bigger project itself. Over hours of music, supported by Jeff Slate’s excellent liner notes, new ideas about the album come into focus.
The album proper begins with the cubism of “Tangled Up in Blue.” The varied perspectives and filtered narrative befit the album. Dylan’s moodiness (the album often gets called his break-up or divorce album) runs throughout the record, but not without plenty of shifts in color, most of which occur within just this track. Not surprisingly, it took Dylan a number of sessions to work out the final sound (which he never properly got until Minnesota) as well as the lyrics, which he continues to toy with in live settings, every switch of pronoun suggesting new meanings.
The structure of that song suggests a forward-looking album, one that thematically wrestles with the past but that seeks to move rock music into something new. Most of the session recordings suggest something else. Dylan was initially expanding his wordy folk music. Something like “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” could have worked as “Bob Dylan’s 237th Dream (The One About Cowboys).” He pushed song structures and narrative possibilities, but the initial sessions are an early ‘70s, even early ‘60s, bit of singer-songwriter music, with new sorts of content and a surfeit of words, but something born from looking in a mirror.
As the sessions progress, Dylan refines these records, but not in a linear manner. It never feels as if he takes an idea and worries it until he finds a satisfying conclusion to an initial vision. The lyrics change, the tempos change and the instrumentations change. Even the straightforward “If You See Her, Say Hello” takes a bit to find its footing. One of the joys of this set lies in hearing “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” take shape. Is it a lament? A ramble? A country tune? Dylan eventually gets there, his willingness to play developing the song as much as any clear vision. That sort of work means that the set is loaded with albums that could have been. It’s hard to imagine that any of these potentialities would be better than the one that ultimately existed, but it’s easy to find astonishment in nearly any form.
The final album succeeds largely because of the tracks re-imagined in Minnesota. “Idiot Wind” works as a solo acoustic song. Dylan offers not just vulnerability but utter hurt in the slow, spacious versions. His character faces offense and slander and struggles on. It’s a significant departure from the angry assault that would eventually be released. By the time we get to the Minnesota sessions, it’s apparent that he went with the right version. It’s final, full-band take needs not only the organ, but that opening hit. The haze creates the atmosphere that allows not only the wrath to flourish, but also the epiphantic moment of self-discovery. For all the rage and combat, we’re all in a mess, and the bigger sound creates a community of deceit and loss and maybe—at least outside the song—a way out in our recognition. The folk versions are something else altogether: an intimate picture of a man working out internal and external demons. It’s a good song like that, maybe even great, but the final version captures the fragmented yet encompassing vision that marked Blood on the Tracks. The Minnesota songs may provoke purists, but Dylan’s inspired decision to revisit them sealed his masterpiece.
Consideration of all these recordings can suggest a sort of academic dryness, but the actual experience remains fun. These songs are, all historical consideration aside, just great music, and we get reminders of that almost constantly. After hearing various experiments on one song, an energetic number pops up; after listening to different tempos, suddenly an emotional moment jumps out. With other compilations of this sort, it might have felt like overkill, but More Blood, More Tracks provides the definitive work on an essential album.