Whether Blood on the Tracks was inspired by the Russian author Anton Chekhov or Dylan’s crumbling marriage to Sara Lownds or that private store of composites and impressions from which all artists inevitably draw is beside the point: By 1975, listeners should have known better than to expect a straight answer from Bob Dylan. Still, the yen to get to the bottom of the album’s inspiration makes sense—an emotional payload this heavy and you want the reassurance it actually happened to someone. Part of the allure was that Blood was the first time in years Dylan had sounded so serious. Self Portrait, New Morning, Nashville Skyline, John Wesley Harding: For years after his 1966 motorcycle accident, almost everything Dylan did seemed like an attempt to subvert people’s expectations of what it meant to be Bob Dylan.
The irony was that as the persona got muddier and his sense of it more elastic, the material got clearer and simpler. Not that Blood on the Tracks laid Dylan bare—if anything, the album’s grace is how carefully it walks the line between confession and allegory, wallowing and reflection, the folksy and the cryptic. In some cases (“Idiot Wind”, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”) Dylan’s vocals are so exaggerated it’s impossible to believe he’s singing about himself; in others, it’s so naturalistic and lived-in (“Simple Twist of Fate”, “Buckets of Rain”) that it’s hard to believe he’s singing about anyone else. Interestingly, Dylan’s early sketches of the songs—some compiled on 2018’s archival release More Blood, More Tracks, some only surviving as notes—are more lyrically direct than what ended up on the album. And then there’s Dylan’s decision to scrap several of the album’s stark early sessions for takes recorded in Minnesota with a hired backing band Dylan barely knew—a gesture that made the final product sound livelier and more self-assured, but also strangely impersonal. In other words, what you hear on Blood on the Tracks is, in part, an artist negotiating how thick they want to make their shell.
By the time the album came out, the singer-songwriter phenomenon Dylan had been unwittingly lumped in with had mostly dispersed, or—in the case of artists like Paul Simon and James Taylor—become part of pop more generally. Meanwhile, younger artists like Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith were taking Dylan’s approach to poetry and the romance of the American myth in new directions, with Born to Run and Horses, respectively. You could see how it might be reassuring to hear an artist as wilfully impenetrable as Dylan sing something as humble as “Buckets of Rain”, or a line like “You’re an idiot, babe/It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”: The genius—he’s finally letting his guard down. But as much as Blood is remembered as the post-mortem of an ordinary human marriage, it also kicked off a decade for Dylan that included the Rolling Thunder Revue, an embrace of backing vocalists, a radical conversion to Christianity and, eventually, synthesisers. There are moments of stillness here, moments of reflection and purity. But in the end, the only constant was change.