by Josh Hurst Kicking the Canon Music

Bob Dylan | Blonde on Blonde

May 15, 2015

The boozy, bloozy, cacophonous conclusion to Bob Dylan’s mid-60s “electric” trilogy, Blonde on Blonde feels every bit the culmination of…something. A wild fever dream of an album, owing as much to Fellini and T.S. Eliot as to Woody and Leadbelly, it’s the sound of Dylan’s imagination pushed to the edge, perhaps even to a breaking point. The record sounds so unencumbered, so liberated, so kinetic in its energy that it’s difficult to imagine how the man could have pushed this particular sound any further; better to leave everything he had on wax and then change directions completely for the follow-up, the spare and economical John Wesley Harding. But if Blonde on Blonde represents the end of something, it also stands very much as its own world of endless possibilities, each song representing a particular rabbit trail Bob might have followed. Taken together, these songs have an effect that is initially bewildering, ultimately intoxicating, and completely paradigm-shifting. Even following the course-altering creativity of Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 RevisitedBlonde on Blonde still shocks; still rocks and rolls with a swagger that sounds like it ought not be allowed; still feels, even after all these years, like Dylan’s getting away with something, and he knows it.

The record sounds so unencumbered, so liberated, so kinetic in its energy that it’s difficult to imagine how the man could have pushed this particular sound any further

Part of the shock comes from the sound of the record, which is thick and hazy, the edges blurring together; it has more heft to it than either of the previous albums, more density than anything Dylan ever made. Its density is not impenetrable, even if it is initially overwhelming, and — working largely with Nashville session cats, their professionalism grounding Dylan’s flights of fancy — the record shakes, swings, and rumbles with more verve and vigor than anything Dylan ever made. Its garage rock mayhem is rooted in country-blues but not particularly reverential to it. The songs perfect everything Dylan tried to do with his electric albums; they are elliptical but not elusive, open to interpretation but never aloof or alienating; no one but Bob could so handily channel universal experiences through such idiosyncratic imagery, such dense and layered poetry. “I Want You” is a blur of pictures, lovestruck and dizzy, but the chorus is simple and precise: “Honey, I want you.” The naked desire in its refrain is made all the more potent by the harried storytelling in the verses. “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” is a tipsy account of bewildered homesickness, evoking a disorientation that eludes linear description. You could almost imagine the song flying off the rails, were it not for the nimble, in-the-pocket rhythm section. “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” seethes and snarls with indignation, though the narrator sounds like he’s rather enjoying his own condescension, his anger turned to bemused pity. It’s not the only blues song here — “Pledging My Time” sounds like it just stomped out of the juke joint. There are quieter moments, too, but none are as simple as they first seem. “4th Time Around” is quiet but prickly; “Just Like a Woman” has been covered many times over, sometimes sounding romantic and sometimes sounding condescending, but Bob’s own reading is perfectly open-ended; and “Visions of Johanna” may be the album’s true masterpiece. The opening line is gloriously mysterious: “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet?” Then for seven minutes the narrator rhapsodizes about the most wonderful-sounding woman, though if you’re really paying attention you’ll note that’s not even who he’s so crazy about. It’s still kind of amazing to hear him get away with it.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.