Revisiting Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks in anticipation of the film adaptation

By Lisa Schermann

I’ve always felt that Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks is the perfect album for the autumn and winter months. Warm but bleak, at once heartbreaking and comforting, downbeat and poetic, it invites that same sweet melancholy as the darkening days and dropping temperatures. But this year especially may be the ideal time to revisit this timeless gem.

On the 2nd of this month, Bob Dylan’s fourteenth ‘bootleg’ album More Blood, More Tracks was released, a 6-CD set that aims to present a history of the creation of cult record Blood on the Tracks. It includes dozens of (as of yet) unreleased early and live recordings of the 10 songs that make up the final 1975 version. The recordings are vivid archives of the painful, difficult, four-month-long process of putting the album together. These 10 songs exist in many versions on the album and impress with their range of instrumental and lyrical changes. They map the musical developments that Dylan and the band went through, before compromising for the lyrics and stripped instrumentals that were to figure on the final version of the album.

It won’t be the first time that Bob Dylan as a musician and figure inspires cinematographers, but never before have the lyrics of his songs been the topic of a film.

Only a few weeks prior to this, Call Me by Your Name director Luca Guadagnino revealed that he would be working on a film adaptation of the album for producer Rodrigo Teixeira, who possesses the theatrical rights to the album. Very little has been announced yet about the upcoming film, except that Richard LaGravanese (The Fisher King, Beloved) is to write the screen play. Guadagnino is still to reveal anything about the filming, the actors or even the soundtrack of the film. It won’t be the first time that Bob Dylan as a musician and figure inspires cinematographers, but never before have the lyrics of his songs been the topic of a film.

In 2007, Todd Haynes had directed the acclaimed I’m Not There, a film based on the life and works of Bob Dylan, which focuses on the period in which he wrote Blood on the Tracks and his relationship with his wife Sara, said to be the key influence of the album. What then is the difference between that project and Guadagnino’s?

There is little doubt that the decision to adapt the lyrics of the album into a film stems from that reappraisal of Dylan as author, of his songs as text.

Ten years after the release of I’m Not There, Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, generating much debate and controversy over his status as a lyricist and literary figure. There is little doubt that the decision to adapt the lyrics of the album into a film stems from that reappraisal of Dylan as an author, of his songs as text. The film will be based on the events narrated in the lyrics of the record, understood as fundamentally different and placed at a distance from Dylan’s own personal life. This film project differs widely from previous cinematic engagement with Bob Dylan in light of his Nobel Prize award, understanding Dylan as more than just a musician.

The film seems promising; Blood on the Tracks is a wonderful album. Ask any Dylan fan about their favourite albums and this one is sure to figure on the top three, rivalled only perhaps by his 1966 Blonde on Blonde. The film raises the question of how to represent the complicated relationship between Dylan and his lyrics. Written following Dylan’s divorce from his wife Sara, Blood on the Tracks is a cathartic album which dramatizes the bitter-sweetness of rupture. Growing past the political ideals of his early 1960s protest songs or the psychedelic surrealism of his late 1960s records, the lyrics on this collection of songs are deeply personal, raw, magnetic. From the minimalism of ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ to the experimental narrative style of ‘Tangled up in Blue’, and the dark, almost gothic feel of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, the album delivers 10 lyrical and musical masterpieces. Stand out songs include ‘Shelter from the Storm’, soul food for the ears and an eerie accumulation of twisted metaphors; ‘Idiot Wind’, filled with rage, and yet bitterly funny, and the idiosyncratic ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’, a narrative puzzle of a song wrapped in a catchy Western saloon vibe.

The classic guitars and harmonicas, banjo and mandolin come together in a stripped-down, almost cozy musical atmosphere which both complements and offsets the darkness of the lyrics.

Dylan’s vocal style throughout the album is bitterly expressive, and to his usual drawl he adds the dramatic groans and sighs that, perhaps more so than the lyrics, make songs like ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ or ‘Idiot Wind’ biting, cataclysmic laments. The classic guitars and harmonicas, banjo and mandolin come together in a stripped-down, almost cozy musical atmosphere which both complements and offsets the darkness of the lyrics. The whole album is more than simply well-rounded; it is an emotional experience which is articulated through Dylan’s heart-wrenching, luminous lyrics, over a background of soft, sometimes sweet, musical arrangements which almost seem to provide a remedy for that pain. To listen to the whole record is to experience the rise and fall of love, the storm of passion and the emptiness after its abating.

In the past decade, Dylan has impressed not so much with his new works as a musician but more so within the literary sphere, with the release of Chronicles, his Nobel prize win, and in light of the recent announcement of the upcoming movie adaptation based on his lyrics. In anticipation of the film, however, let us turn back to the original album Blood on the Tracks and remember what a true musical genius Dylan is.

Photograph by Aaron Hobbs

2 thoughts on “Revisiting Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks in anticipation of the film adaptation

  • Not written “following his divorce” but during a period of great strain in the marriage.

    (“Sara” was yet to be written and then there was the debacle – in this context – of RTR2, documented in R&C.)

    Reply
  • Not written “following his divorce” but during a period of great strain in the marriage.

    “Sara” was yet to be written and then there was the debacle – in this context – of RTR2, documented in R&C. Divorce came only after all that.

    Reply

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