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Bob Dylan - Blonde On Blonde

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 friendsSeriously, who do you know who actually listens to The Who Sell OutSticky 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 palatableIf 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 stuffNor is BOB in the same innovative league as other 1966 heavyweights like RevolverAftermathPet 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 detachedBIABH 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 worldI get so lonely I could dieYou’ve got a lotta nerve to say you are my friendIce 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 balladeeringBOB 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 lyricsTake 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 lyricsvocals and melodiesTake 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.

Blonde On Blonde is available from amazon & iTunes.


The Weekly Froth! - 20161028

  • Published in Columns


The Weekly Froth! A weekly take on six tracks, most of which have recently popped up somewhere in the blogosphere. Bit of a mixed bag with a slight leaning towards house, disco, and remixes, but generally just anything that for some reason tickled the writer’s fancy.

Track of the Week:  ‘I Gotta Feeling’ by Midnight Magic (Jacques Renault remix)

Jacques Renault and Midnight Magic team up again. Renault already has a beautiful remix to his name of this band’s ‘Beam Me Up’, and this time around he puts the bass and Roth’s vocals to good use for this disco/house stomper. In the background there are all kinds of other elements as well, though it takes up until 1:22 before they even come close to being on the same level as the two aforementioned parts of this track (just to subside in a matter of moments again). It’s definitely the bass providing the dancefloor rhythm, providing the background to the vocals and to the horns that come in after the two minute mark, finally helping out that powerful voice that she’s got, singing that she Feels it coming, coming on. Which must be the horns she’s speaking of (obviously…), or that little bit of extra oomph in the rhythm at about the four minute mark, giving you that final nudge onto the dancefloor if you weren’t there yet (which is unthinkable, surely).


‘I Am A Joker’ by BEA1991 (Nick Monaco retouch)

Nick Monaco gets that piano riff in there from the get go, with the drum providing the rhythm line, though he’s even keeping that one light. Shortly after that, the female vocals come in, and after their first verse there is a short oomph, which continues when the vocals return. In the mean time the piano is still the one strutting its stuff, though it gets taken out and, after a minute, gets replaced by a more bass sound. Though, as main sounds tend to do, it comes back after a short minute or so, getting multiple layers in as well. Then Monaco returns the favor, showcasing that piano in a short solo bid before the kick comes in again to guide this one to its end. The combination of the dreamy vocals, the light percussion, and the piano give it a sort of elegance for the dancefloor.



 ‘Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window’ by Bob Dylan (Slow Hands cover)

So what happens when you win the Nobel Prize (whether you want to or not, apparently)? Why, you get covered by Slow Hands of course. They start it out in a very understated manner, giving it a bit of that jazzy class next to some electro fiddling. Then, the vocals come in, slightly hazy, with the clear and clean guitar sound cutting right through that. At 1:50 the song gets a little push, a little pace, through bass and drums, with the guitar still the main attraction right there. In the mean time, the vocals sing that You can go back any time that you want to (so how can he haunt you?), after which, again, that guitar comes back in for a little solo. Slow Hands show their musicality here once again, this time giving you a little bit of that Nobel class for all y’all to enjoy.



 ‘Peace And Love’ by Tall Black Guy feat. Masego & Rommel Donald

May there be peace and love, that’s the plea this one starts with (and surely, there can’t be enough people spreading that message around). After that, we get that slow jam beat going, with some female vocals and a bit of that gui-tar to bring that Let’s all love each other vibe right on in there. Just before the two minute mark the instrumentals are brought way back, with the male vocals coming in repeating that he wishes you Peace and love. Then, when the female voice comes in to repeat that wish right up until it gets granted, first that little beat comes back in, soon followed by that guitar yet again. The three minute mark is the cue for some of those horns to arrive, which are always a welcome sight. For the final minute and a half they bring it way down, going for a bit of spoken word starting a train analogy that gets mimicked in both word and sound, ending the journey with a bit of that gospel to bring that peace message back on home.



 ‘In Love With’ by Funkformer x Starving Yet Full (DBNN acoustic interpretation)

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of that acoustic sound going on, and from the get go it’s obvious that’s what you’re in for. Then, the half-speaking-half-singing vocals come in, giving you that Shakespearian ode to love talking about that Beautiful scar on your chest. Eventually coming to the conclusion that, yes, I’m in love with you, a line that gets continued into the chorus where some additional vocals are brought in to make sure the message comes through loud and clear. The second time the chorus comes around the extra vocals sing you the lines, with the main voice giving you that soul rendition of it. An acoustic ode to the one you love (or to the one that you left behind), we can never really have enough of those, can we?



 ‘Love Machine’ by Tempst Trio (SanFranDisko re-edit)

SanFranDisko gets the percussion to work, putting that pace in from the get go. Then, the bass, providing a slightly more steady rhythm. Soon after, the guitar riff, a very festive sounding one at that, with the strings only adding to this. The vocals soon come in, with them asking Let me be your love machine, turn me on, see what I mean (you go girl!). Just before the two minute mark the verse comes in as well, accompanied by a nice bass to make sure you can boogie down to this not only in the bedroom, but on that disco dancefloor as well. And it’s got all that Seventies goodness to make those dancers get down, with a handclap interlude around 3:20 to boot. After that he ups the funk, with the strings bringing you back to that disco sound. Put on this tune if you want to bring some sexy into your night out (and really, who doesn’t want a bit of that, let’s be honest now).



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