Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Blonde on Blonde - Dylan

Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan's electric follow-up to Highway 61 Revisited, starts off slowly (and not at all like the prelude to a masterpiece) with the loopy "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35." Dylan plays appropriately sloppy harmonica fills over what sounds like a drunken Salvation Army Band. He cracks up a couple of times while he's singing, and you wonder if he's going to make it all the way through. He does, and subsequently makes it all the way to No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart. Of course it didn't hurt that his play on words about stoning and getting stoned was a wink in the direction of the growing counter-culture.
Dylan always countered his counter-culture serious side with a devilish sense of humor, and he pulls it off with this ambitious 2 record set.  Unlike the blurred photo that graces the album's cover, Dylan is well focused. Much of Blonde on Blonde was recorded in Nashville with a group of session musicians led by Joe South, several members of The Hawks, and Highway 61 Revisited carryovers like Al Kooper. Dylan continued his stream-of-consciousness vein, where the lyrics mean different things to each listener. One such number is "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," a subtle groove that carries Dylan through a multitude of self-examination; it's Dylan at his most literary.

Breaks just like a little girl

"Visions of Johanna" is a haunting piece where soft and loud complement themselves. The delicate sound of drum cymbals, rolling bass, and Al Kooper's droning organ are contrasted with guitar interjections and Dylan's harmonica, all of it interpolating Dylan's hazy sing-song style contrasting a prostitute with an unattainable ideal woman.   

"Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," written for then-wife Sara, is a moving piece with Dylan wearing his heart on his sleeve as he sings of her captivating charms. Here, as as on "Visions of Johanna" and a third piece, "Just Like a Woman," despite its alleged misogyny, Dylan tempers his acid-laced tongue to reveal his compassionate side. 
His illusory wit crops up again on the short bluesy blast "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" where Dylan plays the third wheel to an ex whose choice of adornment balances on her head "like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine."
"I Want You" seems the atypical song: a love song with a perky pop melody, thanks in no small part to the swirling organ and chirping guitar.  Yet Dylan sketches in whimsical characters like the flute-playing dancing boy in a Chinese suit. There's a moment in the final verse where he stutters before dropping a song title from 
The Rolling Stones ("Time is on My Side").  

I have always been partial to Side 3 of Blonde on Blonde.  I think the mathematical side of me appreciates that song four is entitled "Fourth Time Around" and the fifth song is "Obviously Five Believers."  But I also think it is because the songs are compact shots of blues- and folk-rock. The dismissive "Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I'll Go Mine)," the yearning "Absolutely Sweet Marie" and "Temporary Like Achilles," which tune sounds borrowed from Dylan's earlier "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," all showcase the symbiosis of Dylan's lyrics and the Nashville musicians who played on the album. This one plays right into AM's Americana theme from early this year.  

The song I always come back to is "Fourth Time Around."  It captures the enigmatic Dylan better than any other song on the album. It's about a one-night stand, possibly with a hooker, where the singer ends up robbing her. But it's set to a lovely melody with a pretty guitar riff that stays in one's head long after the song is over.  It encapsulates the many sides of Bob Dylan on Blonde on Blonde: the jokester, the romantic, the cynic, and the poet.