It’s a funny thing about classic rock that a lot of the genre’s most sacred critical cows are the albums most in need of defending to your friends. Seriously, who do you know who actually listens to The Who Sell Out, Sticky Fingers or The Village Green Preservation Society? (Happy to own up to doing so - Ed.) But as generally ignored as The Who, The Stones and The Kinks may be when you get down to album tracks, it’s hard to think of someone more unjustly treated at the hands of the general public than Mr. Bob Dylan. And that goes double for his masterpiece Blonde On Blonde.
Anecdotally speaking, my friends all plump for Blood On The Tracks or Desire as their favourite Zimmerman album – and that’s just the ones who like Dylan. Everyone else reacts to any mention of the wiry-haired one with either distaste or boredom; pub conversations go a lot more smoothly if you stick to extolling the merits of Radiohead, Pink Floyd or (save us) Bruce Springsteen. Dylan? Essentially a great lyricist, decent songwriter, mediocre player and deplorable singer; a moderately interesting Greatest Hits artist who wrote a handful of great songs best listened to in cover versions.
Blonde On Blonde is the hardest sell of all. This is because, for all its unassailability in Rolling Stone circles, the album basically represents Dylan at his most idiosyncratically Dylanish, and that’s not a prospect that most people find especially palatable. If you’re “most people” yourself, chances are you prefer the much more accessible Blood On The Tracks. Nothing wrong with that. Fine album. But just for a second, let’s pretend BOB is better.
Coming hot on the heels of Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, the album could never hope to be as influential as its predecessors. After all, BIABH rocked up folk and folkified rock, and Highway 61 reinforced the point that electric music could now handle complex themes every bit as well as the Greenwich Village stuff. Nor is BOB in the same innovative league as other 1966 heavyweights like Revolver, Aftermath, Pet Sounds and Freak Out! The album’s only formal innovations to speak of consist in the Nashville elements that predict the emergence of country rock. (And even that’s dubious: Johnny Cash had already been doing crossover work for years; hell, by 1966 even The Beatles and the Stones had blended the two genres.)
No, the greatness of this greatest of albums lies elsewhere. What it lacks in formal innovation and musical influence it more than makes up for with its strangeness. It can’t be listened to as “the first this” or “an interesting example of that”. It stands by itself, sounding like nothing else and not giving a damn. It’s not country rock, it’s not straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, it’s not blues, it’s not confessional singer-songwriter music and it’s certainly not folk rock, whatever that is. Instead it’s a mishmash of all the above, to the power of the humming dynamo of eccentricity that is Dylan’s brain. Famously, the man himself remarked that the album was the closest he ever got to transmitting the sound he heard in his mind. It’s worth taking him at his word.
None of the above would matter if Dylan’s mind weren’t a fascinating place to spend time, but in fact there isn’t a songwriter alive (or dead) better at conveying human emotion in all its maddening complexity. And this is where BOB beats just about every other album of his: John Wesley Harding and Desire are more detached, BIABH and Highway 61 are more extroverted, and Planet Waves and BOTT are more straightforward. BOB, while technically more narrow in focus than any of these – on the surface, most of the songs are about women – has a wider emotional spectrum than any of them.
It’s easy to write lyrics based on “primary colour” emotions like happiness, sadness, anger and fear: “What a wonderful world”, “I get so lonely I could die”, “You’ve got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend”, “Ice age coming”, the list goes on. But the more complex emotions that mix elements of these feelings together – what psychologists call the “self-conscious” emotions – are much harder to get right. They’re also what most adults actually experience most of their waking lives. Song by song, line by line, syllable by syllable, this album expertly mixes tenderness with bluff, pride with anxiety, desire with guilt, swagger with self-doubt, intimacy with distance, authenticity with disingenuousness, and absolutely everything with industrial doses of irony. The end result is far more authentic than any conventional love balladeering. BOB has the audacity to represent emotion as it is actually felt.
How does the album manage it? It’s partly the ambiguous lyrics, which constantly vacillate between adoration and spite in just the way that your typical deeply flawed infatuation does (be honest): “I didn’t mean / To make you so sad / You just happened to be there, that’s all.” ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile’ takes this push-pull dynamic and applies it to the whole panorama of modern city life: “the ladies treat me kindly…But deep inside my heart / I know I can’t escape.” The kaleidoscopic surrealism of the words only enhances their emotional honesty: after all, when’s the last time you had a dream that made sense?
Dylan’s other weapon is his incomparable singing, which takes the words and imbues them with layer upon layer of sarcasm, irony, humour and longing that aren’t there on the page. Forget everything you’ve been told about his pipes and just listen to the way he fuses the discipline of singing with the conversational nature of speech, playing with the structures of the melodies, drawing out and clipping his syllables, and using timing and phrasing as running commentaries on his own lyrics. Take out the backing tracks and forget that you understand English, and that voice communicates a universe of emotion all by itself.
The songwriting is no slouch either. If BOB’s melodies, chords and instrumentation don’t technically advance rock as a whole, they sure as hell mark a leap forward for Dylan. The songs are chock-full of choruses, bridges and riffs, the instrumentation is multi-layered and intricate, and tasty hooks crop up in the most unexpected places. ‘Just Like A Woman’ alone practically has more chord changes than BIABH and Highway 61 put together. Not a single song is generic or under-written; even the several 12-bar blues pieces all have something distinctive to offer. There is also a healthy dose of beautiful tunes from rock’s most underrated melodist. The album’s musical diversity easily matches its emotional range.
It helps that these are some of rock’s best group performances. There’s a level of spontaneity and interplay between the musicians that you won’t find on any other Dylan album (although some come close). Listen to the way the guitar makes way for the organ at the end of every chorus of ‘Woman’. Or the way the drum fills and demented piano playing in the choruses of ‘One Of Us Must Know’ perfectly convey the desperation at the heart of the song. Or the way ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’s’ equally creative drum fills help to lift the harmonica solo into the stratosphere. There are a million other examples, but suffice it to say that the musicianship on BOB has a subtlety and flexibility undreamed of on the album’s more straight-ahead predecessors. The complexity, the sheer weirdness of the arrangements is a perfect fit for the complex weirdness of the lyrics, vocals and melodies. Take everything together and you’ve got a pretty good approximation of the chaos in our own brains.
Chaos isn’t the whole story, however. Diverse as the album is, it’s got a consistent atmosphere running all the way through. But that mood is ultimately impossible to define in words. It can only be felt. There’s yearning in there, and bitterness, and humour, and regret, and weariness. Finally, in ‘Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’, there’s a kind of hard-won peace. But try to condense all that into a single phrase that makes any kind of rational sense and you’re doomed to failure. Because nothing about BOB makes any kind of rational sense.
It’s much too good for that.