Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde

Blonde on BlondeNobody pays much attention to “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”. It goes unnoticed, an obscure blues piece from the era when Bob Dylan was creating so much excellent music so rapidly that a great deal seems to be just lost in the flood. Yet it bears the distinction of being perhaps the most genuinely funny song in his catalogue. Dylan’s earlier albums are intermittently scattered with comic social satires – “I Shall be Free,” “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” and so forth – but most of them are just not very funny. You need look no further than “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” for an example of the same approach executed much more successfully – largely because Dylan no longer seems to be trying to see how many human vanities he can expose in a single four-minute recording. His focus here has narrowed, and the result is an infectiously bonkers serenade to a single lady of his acquaintance who is sporting the titular fashion item. It “balances on your head just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine!”

I recently listened through the so-called electric trilogy for the first time in many years, trying to hear these albums as though I were hearing them fresh, and to dismiss all the familiarity and assumptions of quality that I have accumulated over the years. Since first hearing them as a teenager, I had thought of all three as great but flawed albums, each one bearing many remarkable songs but each one also interspersed with a few awkward, tuneless pieces that made the whole listening experience less than easy or satisfying. On relistening, the first two records both held up pretty much as I had recalled. Bringing it all Back Home is still dragged down by that dismal interlude, those three unfortunate comic experiments (or is “Outlaw Blues” actually meant to be serious?) that form the album’s central section. Highway 61 Revisited is still a mighty, awesome work, but “Ballad of a Thin Man” is still a dirge. So far, so Dylan.

And then I put on Blonde on Blonde, the 1966 double LP (the first of its kind) that closes the trilogy, and something unexpected happened. I found that it was better, richer, more consistent than I remembered, and that I was enjoying it far more than I can ever remember enjoying it in the past. I was prompted to re-evaluate it as the strongest album in the trilogy. As I write this I’m listening through it again, and it wasn’t a fluke of my mood: it’s still fantastic.

For want of any better way of registering how good it is, I’m going to simply walk through the record song by song. (It’s a very basic critical approach, but it suits this album of deliberate contrasts and whackily divergent styles.) Could there be a better illustration of Dylan’s instinct for absurdist iconoclasm than his decision to open Blonde on Blonde with “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”? Coming at a moment when critics and social commentators were ascribing him a colossal measure of significance and seriousness, he announces himself anew with a song that nobody, with all the goodwill in the world, could possibly take seriously. The previous two albums had opened with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone” respectively, two songs on which I for one could write entire articles analysing their various subtle shades of meaning. Blonde on Blonde opens with the sound of a brass band in a pub, and an addled-sounding Dylan insisting straightforwardly that “everybody must get stoned.” The clear message is that this musician refuses to be pigeonholed, even if the pigeonhole is labelled “Very Important Artist” and “Voice of his Generation”.

With “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” setting the stage, we’re predisposed to hear the harmonica-driven blues jam “Pledging my Time” as a comedy, though in fact it is nicely ambiguous and can equally be taken as a sincere song of difficult love. And then, third in line, Dylan springs “Visions of Johanna” on us. And the album suddenly expands. On Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan had pioneered one of his inimitable songwriting trademarks, the surrealist multiple character sketch. He then immediately brought it to its apotheosis with “Desolation Row,” which observes and encompasses an entire society. “Visions of Johanna” is the near-equal of “Desolation Row” in its lyrical deftness and astuteness, and it should properly be considered as the next entry in the same tradition, peopled as it is with easily drawn but vividly memorable characters. It is, however, much more intimate in scope, circling unhurriedly around just one key person – he calls her Louise – who is illuminated by the others. The song has been read as exploring a contrast between sensual love and spiritual love – Louise standing for the first, Johanna the second – and that is perhaps valid. It is more memorable, however, for its sheer lyrical sureness. Many of Dylan’s earlier lyrics, even on Bringing it all Back Home and Highway 61, can sound a little laboured or obvious when you hear them with a more mature ear. “Visions of Johanna” suggests that he has broken through onto a higher plane.

After the strikingly cynical and brutal “One of us Must Know” comes the markedly different “I Want You,” a sincere feel-good celebration that might still be the most upbeat song in Dylan’s catalogue. The mood of warmth is then prolonged with “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” yet another eccentric survey of characters, but more light-hearted and set to a jauntier tune than any previous. Dylan talks us through another batch of the colourful scenes that we have by now come to expect from him, illustrating the bizarre circus of human society all over again, but his imagination is such that it still hasn’t gotten boring. The whole parade leads easily into “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” as the two songs are thematically of a piece – one feels that the preacher with “twenty pounds of headlines stapled to his chest” would give sermons attended devotedly by the woman in the hat. And these songs’ irreverence only throws into sharper relief the tender earnestness and vulnerability of the song that follows. Understated, literate and vividly suggestive, the single “Just Like a Woman,” which remains beloved of countless fans nearly fifty years on, is a perfect example of Dylan’s effortless musicianship.

As if to emphasise the wild, scattered quality that by this point seems to characterise Blonde on Blonde, “Just Like a Woman” is followed by the obnoxious, honking cacophony of “Most Likely You go Your Way,” which injects an abrupt shot of adrenaline into the album as we enter its second half (or the second vinyl, as once it was). The four songs that follow play like a suite of buried treasures, none of them likely to be known to the casual Dylan fan, but all of them surprising and delightful. “Temporary Like Achilles” pairs a slow and folky blues tune with a sly, world-weary lyric. “Absolutely Sweet Marie” is a veritable dance number that rivals “I Want You” in bouncy tunefulness. “4th Time Around” parodies the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and manages to make Lennon’s acute songwriting seem almost vague. And “Obviously 5 Believers” shows off Robbie Robertson’s energised guitar work to fine effect. Finally, the album closes with the eleven-minute elegy “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. This is an epic folk closer like Highway 61’s “Desolation Row” before it, but gentler and happier – fittingly, for it is an ode to Dylan’s new wife, Sarah Lowndes.

Blonde on Blonde bubbles over with seething creativity. It veers from style to style, blending folk and blues and rock music easily and seamlessly, but allowing the focus to remain all the while on Dylan’s many-shaded lyrics. It is musically and intellectually dense, but its loose, anarchistic spirit alleviates any feeling of heaviness. It’s more fun than either of its predecessors, and it packs in more ideas than either of them too. Dylan is too variable and wide-ranging a musician for any one of his albums to be considered the “definitive” Dylan record. But by virtue of illustrating so many different sides of his songwriting, all of them captured during that brief window when it seemed like Dylan could do anything he wanted and succeed, Blonde on Blonde comes closest.

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