Sunday, May 29, 2016

Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde (1966)

Is Blonde on Blonde the greatest rock double album ever?  A good argument can be made for the Beatles' White Album, the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, or even Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (and feel free to suggest the Clash's London Calling), but for sheer nerve and fearlessness, the status of Bob Dylan's masterpiece as rock's definitive double set is untouchable.
Blonde on Blonde brought Dylan and his listeners to the edge of self-awareness, with all the anger, regret and intensity of a man with a soul on fire and a mind with the imagination to express it so obliquely.  The music is sharp and acerbic - so much, with its jagged guitars, mocking organ, upright drums, that it makes Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited sound like mod parlor music - with Dylan providing the most biting instrument of all.  Not his harmonica - his voice.
Blonde on Blonde opens in the loosest and most lackadaisical way, with "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," full of drunken horns and with raucous revelers concurring with Dylan's declaration for everyone to get stoned; perversely, it's the album's only coherent moment.  Much of the rest of Blonde and Blonde is a series of brooding songs lamenting failed romances and seething over the aftermaths, with Dylan attempting to understand old lovers even as he struggles to explain himself.   Songs like "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" and "Just Like a Woman" convey a man brought to his knees by women who have the advantages in these affairs but hold it precariously.  The lilting "I Want You" and "Absolutely Sweet Marie," the latter song chugging along with a steady blues shuffle, are steeped in unrequited desire, a condition that Dylan abruptly turns on its head with his "Norwegian Wood" parody "Fourth Time Around," as much a joke as John Lennon's attempts to emulate the bard himself.
Dylan's lyrics upped the ante with their witty symbolism and their pointed satire, his vocals twisting the knife with a sneer worthy of Elvis.  His put-down of trendiness, "Leopard-skin Pillbox Hat," with its ragged guitars and its marching beat, upended high fashion and prole aspirations, while "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" distills the societal breakdown of the sixties into an inverted landscape where railroad men drink blood like wine (anti-Christs?) and neon madmen scale bricks resting on Grand Street while politicians and church elders seek acknowledgement.  Blonde on Blonde more than lives up to Dave Marsh's explanation of the album: "This was rock and roll at the farthest edge imaginable, instrumentalists and singer all peering into a deeper abyss than anyone had previously imagined existed."
Inevitably, Dylan's quest to look deeper into that abyss almost landed him in it; two months after Blonde on Blonde's release, he ended up in a motorcycle accident, which sidelined him for over a year.  Ironically, the album has a happy ending - "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," an eleven-minute ballad taking up all of side four, is a gorgeous, romantic number finding Bob asking questions of and willingly submitting to the woman of his dreams.  (In fact, he married his wife Sara in late 1965.)  Once Dylan's fans were assured that he had survived his motorcycle crash, they eagerly awaited his next move.  But even before his accident and his subsequent seclusion, it was clear that, after his experiences on the edge, Bob was looking for a way to pay to get out of going though all of those things twice.  
(This is my last review for awhile.  Appropriate, no?)

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