Defying Time in Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks

Blood On The Tracks is an album of songs concerned totally with ‘the inexorable disintegration of relationships and with the dignity of keeping on trying to reintegrate them against all odds’ (Michael Gray, Song and Dance Man III). To express this theme he uses a finely honed craft and a conscious and very specific approach to the lyrics: the distortion of time, the overlaying of past and present, and the shifting perspectives of the protagonists are key elements to many of the songs on the album, particularly Tangled Up In Blue, Simple Twist Of Fate, Idiot Wind and Shelter From The Storm.

It seems that this approach came out of Dylan’s painting classes with the artist Norman Raeben in 1974. As he told journalist Jonathan Cott, ‘He put my mind and my hand and my eye together in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt.’ Andy Gill summarises the influence in his article in issue 91 of Mojo (June 1991):

In particular, Raeben had brought Dylan to a more fruitful understanding of time, enabling him to view narrative not in such strictly linear terms, but to telescope past, present and future together to attain a more powerful, unified focus. The immediate effect of this can be heard on Blood On The Tracks, most notably in a song like Tangled Up In Blue, where temporality, location and viewpoint shift back and forth from verse to verse, rather in the manner of montaged jump-cuts in a movie or the fictions of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, allowing him to reveal underlyng truths about the songs’ characters while letting them remain shadowy, secretive figures.

Dylan’s comments on the song Tangled Up In Blue reveal how this approach directly affected his work (quote from Uncut Legends #1: Dylan): ‘I was trying to do something that I didn’t think had ever been done before. I wanted to defy time, so that the story took place in the present and the past at the same time. When you look at a painting, you can see part of it, or see all of it together. I wanted that song to be like a painting.’

This change of perspective was part of the cause of the separation between Dylan and his wife of ten yeas, Sara, which provides the thematic background for many of the songs on the album. As he explained to Pete Oppel: ‘Needless to say, it changed me. I went home after that and my wife never did understand me ever since that day. That’s when our marriage started breaking up. She never knew what I was talking about, what I was thinking about, and I couldn’t possibly explain it.’

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