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Album Review: Bob Dylan’s ‘More Blood, More Tracks’

Some of the sphinxlike legend's most personal material feels even more revealing in the mid-'70s outtakes contained in a six-CD boxed set.

Since the institution of Bob Dylan’s ongoing “Bootleg Series” of archival releases with its inaugural career-spanning three-disc title of 1991, the musician’s fans have been clamoring for a release tracking the recording sessions for his landmark 1975 album “Blood On the Tracks.” Even beyond its fascinating and contorted studio history — which encompassed largely discarded work cut over four days in New York in September 1974 and two days of re-recordings in Minneapolis three months later — the album holds a unique allure for listeners. The songs Dylan brought to the table, born amid renewed celebrity and spawned in no small measure by a failing marriage, were fraught with intense emotion, and listeners embraced the material on a deeply personal level, thrusting the record to No. 1 on the national charts.

After years of incomplete under-the-counter packages and a handful of scattered, tantalizing official releases (on the first “Bootleg Series” set, 1985’s “Biograph,” the 1996 soundtrack for “Jerry McGuire” and the B-side of the 2012 single “Duquesne Whistle”), Columbia Legacy has finally brought the “Blood On the Tracks” sessions to market in a limited six-CD set, as “More Blood, More Tracks,” the 14th “Bootleg Series” volume.

The deluxe edition of the present package takes its cues from “The Cutting Edge,” the mammoth 2015 set that collected all of Dylan’s 1965-66 studio work on 18 CDs. It is likewise a limited edition, and strives to compile every extant note captured for the ’75 opus, incomplete takes and all. (For non-completists, an abridged, more easily digested version is available in a one-CD and two-LP version comprising 11 selected tracks.)

Even absent a lone alternate of “Idiot Wind” that somehow fell between the cracks, it’s a profound look into the difficult birthing of an acknowledged masterwork in Dylan’s canon. Like “The Cutting Edge,” it affords a detailed consideration of the artist at work — probing and tinkering as he confronts some of the most naked songs in his oeuvre with a combination of acuity and spontaneity, trying out and jettisoning ideas and even entire tunes, as he slowly homes in on the right settings for some of his most nakedly honest compositions.

One of those songs, “You’re a Big Girl Now,” pointedly quotes a line, “Love is so simple,” from filmmaker Marcel Carne’s 1946 romantic epic “Children of Paradise.” In its totality, “Blood On the Tracks” gives the lie to that notion, but Dylan began his sessions for the record with some performances of staggering simplicity.

The first recording date, engineered by the late Phil Ramone at his A&R Studios (formerly Columbia’s Studio A) in New York, began with Dylan essaying five of his new songs in multiple solo takes; these make up the first of the box’s discs. They are so intimate that one gets a little uncomfortable listening to them — it’s almost like an invasion of privacy. You can hear the unsettling sound of the buttons on Dylan’s vest rattling against his acoustic guitar.

He was apparently road-testing the material for himself, for later the same day he attempted to lay down five other songs with a band quickly brought in, at Ramone’s suggestion, by guitarist-banjoist Eric Weissberg, whose instrumental “Dueling Banjos” had become a hit after it was used in the 1972 feature “Deliverance.”

Dylan’s evening-long date with Weissberg’s quintet of session players (also known as Deliverance) finally hit the wall after eight unsuccessful takes of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” Listening to the proceedings, one senses unease and uncertainty on Dylan’s part; it recalls the protracted, frustrating and ultimately discarded 1966 sessions with the Hawks (later the Band) that take up most of three discs on “The Cutting Edge.” When he wasn’t getting what he wanted from his sidemen, Dylan was not hesitant about pulling the plug.

Just one number with the group — the blues “Meet Me in the Morning,” enhanced with a pedal steel guitar overdub by Buddy Cage of New Riders of the Purple Sage — was ultimately used on the released “Blood On the Tracks.” (Tellingly, a variant of that song, “Call Letter Blues,” remained under wraps until the first “Bootleg Series” volume; the lyrics to the song, a soul-baring, stunningly sung piece about marital separation, are so brutal that they have never officially appeared in their entirety in official print or online renderings.)

Nonetheless, Dylan heard something he liked in the playing of bassist Tony Brown, and tried a first take of “Tangled Up in Blue” as a duet to end the first day’s work. That established the path for much of the remainder of the work at A&R; except for a few numbers employing keyboardist Paul Griffin, a veteran of several ‘60s Dylan sessions, and a solo shot at “Buckets of Rain,” the rest of the New York material is the product of that duo.

Nearly all the remainder of “More Blood, More Tracks” is devoted to the Dylan-Brown duets. Here Dylan holds his songs up to the light, essaying multiple takes in different keys, at different tempos, in different arrangements, occasionally fine-tuning lyrics. An amusing fly-on-the-wall moment comes as the sessions wind down, when studio guest Mick Jagger suggests that Dylan try playing slide guitar on a remake of “Meet Me in the Morning”; after a few bars, he abruptly dismisses the attempt.

Columbia Records, with which Dylan had re-signed after a two-album flirtation with David Geffen’s Asylum, assembled a 10-track version of “Blood On the Tracks” for release from the A&R sessions (presented here for the first time at normal speed — tracks were accelerated by 2-3% during mixing — and shorn of the echo applied by Ramone).

However, in a not-so-simple twist of fate, Dylan continued to second-guess what he had recorded, and, after playing an acetate of the record for his younger brother David Zimmerman during a visit to the Twin Cities that December, he decided to readdress five of the songs in Minneapolis’ Sound 80 Studio with a group of local players recruited by his sibling, who was heavily involved in the local music scene.

Sadly, none of the outtakes from that date has survived, and the released versions are heard on the “More Blood” box in remixed versions. According to the testimony of the musicians offered in Andy Gill and sideman Kevin Odegard’s 2004 book “A Simple Twist of Fate,” there was little outstanding material, as most of the finished cuts were achieved with just a few passes; “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” nearly eight catapulting minutes in length, was evidently captured in a single complete take.

Appearing in context alongside the New York material, the Minneapolis recordings indicate that — the opinions of those who admire the scorched-earth A&R versions aside — Dylan made the right moves when he returned to the songs.

“Tangled Up in Blue,” remade with all its lyrics now recast in the first person, is a more cohesive and affecting song. Blasted across by a full band, the refocused “Idiot Wind” acquires vituperative new force. And it’s impossible to imagine the Wild West epic “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” without the galloping ebullience of its later reading. Everywhere the hometown group lets light into music that might have played too severely without some instrumental leavening.

True to its evolutionary approach, the deluxe “More Blood, More Tracks” offers a complementary volume of memorabilia and ephemera that places “Blood On the Tracks” in its 1974 context, featuring photos and documentation of that year’s No. 1 collaborative album with the Band, “Planet Waves,” and the subsequent joint tour that returned Dylan to live performing.

Perhaps best of all, the book includes a reproduction of the famous “little red notebook” in which Dylan set down drafts of the songs that would appear on “Blood On the Tracks,” and a few that would not. Between the nearly six-hour sprawl of the box’s 87 tracks and the crabbed lines penned into that 19-cent workbook, one is afforded a microscopic look into the most searing creation of its sphinxlike author.

 

Bob Dylan

“More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14 (Deluxe Edition)”

Columbia Legacy Records

Album Review: Bob Dylan's 'More Blood, More Tracks'

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