What can be said about Bob Dylan? He’s an artist of incalculable influence. To absorb his music is to understand one of the last remaining strains of 1960s Americana that isn’t tarnished with the muddy waters of faded memory and commercial nostalgia.
That said (and I know this is a contestable point) Blonde On Blonde catches Dylan at his fluttering pinnacle. The album was written and recorded in the midst of his transition to electric instrumentation with a backing band, which was a large source of controversy for his largely folk-based fanbase. The first album to be entirely electric (Highway 61 Revisited) tested the waters with sprawling epics and seething comebacks and enjoyed great success, setting the stage for Blonde On Blonde‘s more subdued, but also more poignant tracks.
Nowhere is this idea more clear than in the album art. Previous albums showed Dylan in various poses showcasing his youthfulness and casual energy, but this cover shows an entirely different side of him. This is a scowling portrait of a mad prophet. Dylan’s hair is wild and his lips are pursed. He glares past the lens of the camera into the vague middle distance, which further strengthens the slice-of-life imagery that’s enforced here. This is everyday life for a man of supreme mystery; photos snapped at impulse against a dingy brick building, extremely blurred and devoid of album/artist info. It’s Dylan’s way of saying, “You think you know, but you don’t.”
For sample tracks, I chose the album’s bookends. The first track is the sprawling woozy squawks of a drunken New Orleans jazz band. I always take this track in context of the buzz surrounding Dylan at the time – as a shunned folk-diviner, a reluctant figurehead, and celebrated poet of the apocalypse among other things. Fresh off a controversial change in instrumentation, Dylan throws the sloppy howl of brass in the listener’s face, along with a catchy line that everyone loved to hate as much as they loved to sing along: “Everybody must get stoned!” After this track, you understand the uneasy portrait on the front cover and how unpredictably profound Bob Dylan can be.
The second track is the long, heartfelt closer to the album. At over 10 minutes long, this song took up the entire B-side of the second disc of a double album – an extremely gutsy move. Still, the quiet energy and genuine sentiment of the song never diminishes as it progresses onward. The song is a fitting close to the record, combining bizarre and surrealistic imagery that bounces along with Dylan’s lilting melody and sandpaper rasp. The odd combination is the flipside of the untraceable genius exemplified in the first track; where “Rainy Day Women” was offensive, drunk, and brazen, “Sad Eyed Lady” is strange, steady, and eloquent.
The informationless album cover of Blonde On Blonde seems bare, but is far from restrained; it gives each listener illumination through omission. Names are missing and edges are blurred as if to challenge us to an experience from an unassuming visionary, and one hard to pin down. It’s the lack of clarity that gives album and artist the attention they deserve as odd evokers.
Artist: Bob Dylan
Album: Blonde on Blonde
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)