Last week at the open mic night I run, I decided that Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks was the perfect antidote to the festive cheer that has poured out of the bar’s speakers like sickly brandy-cream lately. This sparked conversations with a couple of regulars and the consensus seems to be that it’s the perfect break-up album, the definitive soundtrack to heartbreak. That may be true, but to me it’s always been the perfect album for this time of year too.
Winter is there in the taught strings seemingly on the verge of snapping, representative of Bob’s psyche certainly, but also evocative of the fragility of frost on a brittle branch and a brisk dusk-light walk on treacherous ground. From the opening line of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ a chill descends, with the spare guitar line and the line “early one morning the sun was shining, I was laying in bed” bringing to mind the glare of sunlight through a crack in the curtains and the sharp, immediate clarity it brings on a crisp morning. By the album’s midpoint, ‘Meet Me In The Morning’, the sun may have sunk “like a ship” and Bob may be mourning his broken heart but there’s also an icy swagger in the music, a defiance of the cold as the hail falls. At the end of the album, the hail has given way to “buckets of rain” and there’s resignation in his voice, a kind of calmness in the acceptance of defeat and loss: “Life is sad / Life is a bust / All ya can do is do what you must”.
Too often critics separate Dylan’s lyrics from his music and analyse them as poetry, but this album perfectly illustrates why this is approach misses the point. The emotion and feeling of the songs is as much there in the strained guitar, sorrowful harmonica and stark atmosphere of the record as in the words. One of my favourite things about the LP format is that the best compel you to immerse yourself in their world, conjuring images and meanings that are often unique to each listener. To me, Blood on the Tracks is the snowy summit of this kind of listening experience.
What is your favourite soundtrack to the bleak midwinter?