Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”

Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" album cover This week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks” to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Each Bob Dylan album so far has been monstrously impressive from a songwriting perspective. His skill to employ metaphor within narrative songs that utilize rhyme is astounding. For me, this album is right up there with “Blonde on Blonde” and I can’t get enough of it now that I’ve spent a week with it.

Finger-picked blues guitar drives the track “Meet Me in the Morning.” At first, I didn’t care for this song due to its repetitive nature. A twelve bar blues progression (I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-V-I-I) provides foundation upon which Dylan sings lyrics that follow the twelve-bar blues blues format of one line repeated twice, then a line in response. Like much of the album, the lyrics deal with a struggling relationship.

The first verse opens with the title “Meet me in the morning, 56 and Wabasha. Honey, we could be in Kansas by the time the snow begins to thaw.” I’m not sure why they are meeting to travel, except perhaps as a change of scenery or escape. The next verse tells how some say it’s darkest before the dawn, but the singer is always dark. But, when the morning rooster crows in the third verse, the singer feels mistreated by his lover. He feels persecuted and trapped, and wonders if the love was a curse. “Look at the sun sinking like a ship. Ain’t that just like my heart, babe, When you kissed my lips?”

I loved this catchy song by the end of the week. I like the layers of multiple guitars.  In the right channel , a bright acoustic guitar plays rhythm-lead lines. A fuzzy slide guitar soaked in reverb provides some atmosphere in the background. Another acoustic guitar quietly strums the chords. And yet clean electric guitar joins later to pick some lead lines and also gets in conversation with the fuzz guitar during the outro.

Also, I find it impossible to not sing along to the mellow grooving bassline.

On “Shelter From the Storm,” Dylan sings tenderly of a love lost. The jangly acoustic guitar dances nervously between the bass and vocals. We hear the sound of the pick and/or guitar strap ticking and rattling against the guitar. These additional sounds of guitar-playing unintentionally provide the only percussion. This type of natural imperfections lends a sense of authenticity to the recording. The chord progression throughout is a basic I-V-IV-I, with the melody providing a sense of variation through the verses.

These are some tremendous lyrics. The song is about confusion, loss, frustrations and heartache, but he’s telling it through the sweetness and tenderness. That’s how the song manages to be so powerful.  Rather than talking so much about pain and loss, he talk about promises and what was lost. However, it’s the middle verse that puts everything in perspective.

Now there’s a wall between us, something there’s been lost
I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed
Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn
Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm

Of course, there’s layers of ambiguity here as other themes become part of the picture. Images of Christ come into play, which could embarrassingly make a martyr out of the speaker, but I prefer to avoid that interpretation.  It’s too mighty a structure of self-pity, and also would be too self-righteous in contrast to other statements in the song.

The brilliant “Tangled Up in Blue” opens the album and remained my favorite song the full week. I rather feel it’s too great of a song to be the first. The opening chords of A and Asus4 play in my head all day. The verses are in a I-VIIb-I-VIIb-I-VIIb-I twice, followed by V-vi-I-IV twice and ends with VIIb-IV-I for the refrain of “Tangled up in blue.”

The first half of each verse is sung in a restrained back-and-forth melody, with the pitch rising for the second half. The percussion and other instruments likewise pick up in energy. This is balanced by the lower-pitched chords of E and F#m. The the refrain anchors the verse back to the tonic on “blue.” It’s interesting the use of chords for this key. The chords are more likely those of a song in the key of G, while the melody is actually in key of A.

As with the whole album, the layering and interplay of instruments is fantastic. Multiple strummed and picked acoustic guitars provide a full atmosphere of sound. Still they are mixed in a way that manages to keep things feeling stripped down.

The lyrics are the most amazing part of the song. A week definitely provides too little time to fully appreciate all he has going on here. At the very basic level, I appreciate the narrative quality of the song. Songs that tell stories, especially about characters and their relationships, get my interest. I especially appreciate tales of that touched on and lost and over-arching tales that narrow in on details. This is especially made poignant by going back to a place while accentuating the distance.

So now I’m going back again,
I got to get to her somehow.
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now.
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter’s wives.
Don’t know how it all got started,
I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives.
But me, I’m still on the road
Heading for another joint
We always did feel the same,
We just saw it from a different point of view,
Tangled up in blue.

Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”

Blonde on Blonde album cover.This week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan‘s 1966 double LP “Blonde on Blonde” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician. I listened to Bob Dylan’s earlier “Highway 61 Revisited” for this project about two months ago. That has long been one of my favorite albums, but “Blonde on Blonde” was mostly new to me. Overall, Dylan got even better in the year between the two. The writing and performance are more focused and less chaotic. In its entirety, this double LP is remarkable with incredible high points. Some songs could stand to be cut to create a fantastic single LP album.

The album opens with perhaps the weakest song, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35. I like the raucous marching circus accompaniment; Still, the lyrics are really too silly to justify four and half minutes. No matter what interpretation you read into the song, yhe “Everybody must get stoned” pun doesn’t deserve this much celebration. I’ll also skip by “Pledging My Time“, a blues track that fails to grab my attention.

My absolute favorite song on “Blonde on Blonde” is Visions of Johanna. The accompaniment is primarily an acoustic guitar strumming a chord progression mostly based on I-IV-V7. The mid-section of each verse builds some suspense by repeating I-IV. A V7-I cadence closes each verse. Wistful lines of sustained notes are played on an organ in the right channel balanced by a twangy guitar’s occasional noodling on the left channel. A bass guitar in the center plays jugband bass-lines travelling the across chords. Dylan’s carries more emotion than typically heard on other songs; This is appropriate considering the subject matter, ambiguous as it may be.

The lyrics of “Visions of Johanna” made it quickly my favorite. It’s not particularly clear who or what Johanna is and if the “visions of Johanna” are memories, fantasies, or something else. Whatever they are, the speaker is uncomfortably haunted by the visions; they add a tinge of sadness to real experiences in the present. In a way, the visions “that kept me up past the dawn” remind me of Poe’s raven that visited “upon a midnight dreary.”

There are two female characters: the Johanna who is “not here” and Louise who is. There are several apparent male characters: the speaker in first person, Louise’s lover, the night watchman, the little boy lost, the peddler, and the fiddler. I wonder if all of these male characters are different aspects of the same person. Even Louise can act as a mirror forcing the speaker to look back within himself. Within that mirror the speaker sees himself replaced by the ever present visions of Johanna.

Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

Another song I love, “I Want You” feels more like walking alone passing through various scenes. The chorus is a straight-forward “I want you, I want you, I want you so bad”. I read somewhere that often in songwriting, the chorus provides the lens through which to interpret the verses and that’s definitely the case here. This simple chorus also provides a nice contrast to the verses in which so much happens. In all that the speaker sees and encounters, the desire for subject of the song. I actually first heard this song as covered by Sophie B Hawkins when I was 15. Here version brings out the feelings of longing and hurt more than Dylan’s, but I think both are excellent. I especially like the motif played on a clean electric guitar that plays throughout the verses of the Dylan recording.

I continue to find Dylan an amazing lyricist and I’m really appreciating his use of traditional chord progressions and instrumentation. About 10 years, I was concerned about using too many common chord progressions and basic chords. I thought of this as a weakness and that chord progressions were an area where being unusual and creative were a measurement for quality songwriting. When I started writing songs for Trip Gunn, I threw out this assumption. Many amazing songs have been written on little more than I-IV-V progressions.  Variety is good, but there’s nothing wrong with the familiar.

What I learn as a songwriter from Dylan on “Blonde on Blonde” is much the same as “Highway 61 Revisited” and that includes the lesson that it’s beneficial for instruments to be in conversation with each other. The difference is that on the earlier album the individual instruments were often playing independent of each other and on this album they are working together. While the lyrics on “Highway 61” are often more inventive than they are here, there’s a greater sense of meaning and expression on “Blonde on Blonde.” There rhymes also feel more natural this time around. I like the use of imagery and setting of scenes on this album.

Unfortunately, the album versions of these songs are not available on YouTube, but I’ve provided links to decent versions that are similar. Most are live.

Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”

I have been listening to Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album “Blue” for past seven days. This album was all new to me, but I have not looked forward to this week. What little experience I’ve had with Joni Mitchell proved to be unpleasant. This time allowed me to develop an appreciate for the songs. Joni Mitchel is a noteworthy songwriter and a great pianist and guitarist. Many people love her singing, but I’m not one of them. I like her voice in the lower alto range, but too often her singing often dances up to a soprano. Thankfully, everything else on the album is good, so there’s plenty else for me to appreciate.

In contrast to Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited“, the instruments play in conversation with each other. The voice provides the primary source of melody, but also takes part in the conversation. Sometimes an instrument will continue a melodic phrase at the end of a verse or chorus. I see this album categorized as Folk or Folk-Country, but I hear a lot of jazz influence. Some of her melodies and the way the piano and voice work together make me think more of vocal jazz than folk. I see now how later musicians that I’m more familiar with like Alanis Morissette, Counting Crows, Tracy Chapman, and Tori Amos drew much of their influence. I enjoy her oft-clever use of phrasing, story-telling and descriptive language.

Carey” immediately caught my attention and quickly became my favorite song on the album. The breezy strummed dulcimer of this jaunty song appropriately suggests both dancing at a cafe and travel. “Carey” is one of the few songs on the album with percussion and even this is an unobtrusive hand percussion. The lyrics are a farewell letter from one who’s decided living the beach commune life isn’t their thing. They did not always get along, but they were still friends (“Oh you’re a mean old Daddy, but I like you”). I love the opening verse that perfectly introduces the setting, topic and tone of the song.

The wind is in from Africa;
Last night I couldn’t sleep.
Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here, Carey,
But it’s really not my home.
My fingernails are filthy,
I’ve got beach tar on my feet,
And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne.

The other song that I liked was the album closing “The Last Time I Saw Richard“. The melody flits seemingly aimlessly like bumblebees across flowers, while on the piano she plays arpeggios as if searching for a song. The thing is that this sense of searching without getting there suits the song perfectly. I can imagine the piano player in the dark corner of the cafe at closing time. Maybe there’s a few customers left, but the singer ignores them. She remembers the cynical Richard in the first verse as criticizing her “You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies, pretty lies”. However, when he plays a song on the jukebox, she points out his own hypocrisy and contradiction in one of the best verses on the album:

He put a quarter in the Wurlitzer, and he pushed
Three buttons and the thing began to whirr.
And a bar maid came by, in fishnet stockings and a bow tie,
And she said, ‘drink up now it’s getting on time to close.’
‘Richard, you haven’t really changed’, I said.
‘It’s just that now you’re romanticizing
some pain that’s in your head.
You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs
You punched are dreaming;
Listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet.’
When you gonna get yourself back on your feet?
Oh and love can be so sweet, love so sweet

I love that line “You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs you punched are dreaming.”

As these verses from “Carey” and “Last Time I Saw Richard” demonstrate that Joni Mitchell incorporates rhyme in her songs, though not she’s not as strictly formal as Bob Dylan on “Highway 61 Revisited.” She doesn’t mind breaking a rhyme scheme, or even having many lines that don’t rhyme. Her use of rhyme is also more subtle and natural. For example, in “Carey”, when she rhymes “not my home” with “French cologne.” The lyrics and melodies maintain natural flow much more than stick to a traditional rhythmic pattern.

I have learned to appreciate Mitchell’s songwriting. Unfortunately, my dislike of most of her singing will keep me from returning to this album after this week. IT’s a shame, because some of the songs are very good.

Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”

Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" album cover

I listened to Bob Dylan’s 1965 album “Highway 61 Revisited” this week for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. This album caught my attention when I was about 16 years old. As a child, I hated Bob Dylan’s voice, but I felt differently as a teenager. Within a couple of months, I knew all of the words and sang along to the whole album. My experience with this album proved a challenge, because my desire to sing along often prevented me from giving a closer listen. When I did, new layers of the songs showed themselves. Some refreshing, some disappointing.

The accompaniment in several of the tracks is a little chaotic, as if everybody knew the tempo and chords and had at it. The vocals and harmonica are the focus of all songs, so the other instruments are not immediately noticeable. While each instrument plays great accompaniment to the vocals, they are all playing the same song independently. This creates peculiar interactions, but more often creates the sensation that everybody is jamming along in the room. The exceptions feel more cohesive as songs. There’s a lesson here to remember the whole when writing and performing each individual instrument. I enjoy atmosphere of a loose group of traveling musicians having a chance meeting and playing songs together, but I do wonder how the songs would sound if they were better orchestrated.

This may be why Desolation Row feels so right; the last song of the album has stripped down accompaniment of two acoustic guitars over an unimposing bass guitar. In contrast, my favorite track Queen Jane Approximately sounds particularly unrehearsed with several instruments simultaneously playing as if they have are lead accompaniment without knowing what to do. The organist seems to be trying out different ideas with the tape rolling. I realized this after making a conscious effort to focus on individual instruments. The electric guitar’s activity fiddles about in a similar manner. The song opens beautifully with piano and guitar, but loses that sense of planning soon after the vocals start.

The lyrics drive this album; therefore, the focus is always the vocals that deliver them. Lyricists can learn a lot from the work of Bob Dylan. Though certainly dependent on the music, the words on this album read like formal poetry more than rock lyrics. Bob Dylan adheres to consistent structures of rhyme and rhythm for the words on all of these songs. Sometimes the determination to rhyme lead to some word choices that are at times amusing, clever, and inspired. Some of my favorite examples are in “Tombstone Blues”. Each verse is a pair of stanzas. For each stanza, the first three lines rhyme and then the last line of each stanza rhymes with the other. The third verse has the great rhyme of “sick in” with “chicken” making both lines even more memorable than they would be already. This verse also provides examples of Dylan’s ability to write meaningful lines with what would normally have been nonsense rhymes.

Well, John the Baptist, after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero, the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, “Tell me, great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”
The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And, dropping a barbell, he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”

Bob frequently uses an epistolary phrasing on this album. He is speaking TO somebody in particular. In narrative “Ballad of a Thin Man”, Dylan utilizes 2nd person perspective. However, the tone tends towards condescension. It’s like Alice in Wonderland, but whereas Alice was naive, curious and able to hold her own, the titular Mr. Jones is an uptight square that just doesn’t get it.

Most of what I come away from this album learning is the importance of working on and revising the lyrics; And also to not be afraid of the structures of formal poetry. That and to write individual instruments parts to be in conversation (not necessarily agreement) with each other.