A Tribute to Bob Dylan

A Tribute to Bob Dylan - Arjun Sajip revisits Blonde on Blonde

One of Bob Dylan's many skills is his innate ability to sum up concepts and ideas in beautifully concise little aphorisms. In 1978 he described the sound of his miraculous Blonde on Blonde (1966) as "thin… wild mercury", which seems pretty accurate: as you chemists out there will undoubtedly know, mercury is the only metal which is liquid at room temperature. Listening to BoB you can see exactly why this description is so apposite: the music ebbs and flows like a river of ambrosia, gently trickling along in Visions of Johanna, hitting the rocks, crashing and exploding in the numerous colourful climaxes of One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).

I focus on the music here because the music enshrining Dylan's imaginative lyrics never gets enough attention. Few ever pause to take in Al Kooper's wonderfully subtle, atmospheric curling organ lines on Just Like A Woman, or even Kenney Buttrey's jazzy, crashing drumming on Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine). For although Dylan has never been maladroitly backed, BoB was the first time he attempted such complex arrangements so successfully. And boy, is it tightly played – not a single wasted moment, none of the warm sloppiness that was all over Highway 61 Revisited and many of his later albums. This is probably largely courtesy of lead guitarist Robbie Robertson, a master of melodic concision. The band is not a group synonymous with musical self-indulgence.

Few other artists have covered such immense ground between successive albums. In just two years Dylan had gone from a cryptic, political folkie to a rock frontman, smashing conventions and transforming his own character into something altogether charismatic, elusive and therefore fascinating. Dylan did in two years what the Beatles did in three: releasing a "trilogy" of ground-breaking masterpieces (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde) that developed even as it grew increasingly reviled within the folk community. BoB stands on its own, though, meriting exegeses as if it were a historical event. If not the best of the trilogy, it certainly is the densest.

It catches him in what Jules Winnfield would call a "transitional period": while on Highway he seemed sure of himself, angry and untouchable, and on 1967's John Wesley Harding confident in his own apparent doom-laden prescience, he finds himself here slightly bewildered, possibly at his now-immense fame. This tension is palpable in the music: not only in the arrangements - would which, if any tighter, snap like an elastic band – but also in many of the lyrics. Highway and BoB don't feature much Biblical imagery, in stark contrast with Bringing It All Back Home or John Wesley Harding. His flirtations with religion can be useful in understanding the man himself, despite his refusal to be understood. There is more proof of tension in the album: moreover, many of the rhymes in Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands appear almost forced, as if he is unable to fully express himself, and the irony of being "stuck" in a place called Mobile is strange dichotomy that sums up his frustration. This feeling is not only sexual (Visions of Johanna, Absolutely Sweet Marie) but intellectual and almost physical. Can he box himself out of the corner he has painted himself in? Clearly, with the explosion of ideas that is BoB. In many areas, upsetting lyrical themes are offset by joyous musical arrangements. The carnival-esque Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35 is almost a sign of recognition of his frustration, and his acknowledgement that it can be alleviated even annulled, by the sheer joy of music.

The drug-addled haziness of the music on the album is punctuated only by Dylan's sharp harmonica and his withering, witty putdowns. The album is like a surrealist painting, arguably best epitomised in the series of social vignettes that is the ravishing Visions of Johanna.

Arjun Sajip

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