Saturday, April 26, 2014

Blonde on Blonde: The Wild Mercury Sound

Blonde on Blonde completed a cycle of albums Dylan made in 1965-66 that remain unrivaled in the history of rock. Released on the momentum of going electric on Bringing it all Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde continued to push the possibilities of songwriting in the 1960s and beyond.  Unlike previous LP's, it took much longer to write and record. When the initial studio sessions in New York City with "The Band" failed to produce anything to Dylan's satisfaction he relocated to Nashville on the advice of Columbia producer Bob Johnston and the album began to take shape.

Many bootlegs exist of "She's Your Lover Now," sounds like a template of the songs to appear on Blonde on Blonde - mainly in terms of theme and tone.  Recorded with the band on January 21, 1966, it's a manic stream of consciousness rant from the perspective of a man seeing a former girlfriend with someone new.  The move to Nashville allowed Dylan to give a more poetic touch to the lyrics and the right group musicians to provide the sound to match the words. 

"Visions of Johanna" weaves an bewildering web of desire, betrayal, and spiritual malaise is best played after midnight when it will make more sense. Melancholy and freedom mingle on "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" has the right amount of loss, sorrow, past joy. "I Want You" a three minute pop song on romantic longing and jealousy encapsulates the essence of Blonde on Blonde. The eleven minute Romantic ballad, "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", we have a pure love song with no hint of cynicism, quite unlike anything he recorded before or since.

Dylan himself has singled out the album's "thin wild mercury sound" as a career benchmark. Something clicked between Dylan and Nashville session musicians Charlie McCoy, Wayne Moss, Joe South, Kenny Buttrey who all created the watercolor sound of the album - with support from Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson on organ and guitar. Dylan would stay up all night revising lyrics while the musicians waited to play, usually just before dawn. Their range gave the album an array of styles ranging from the blues, rock, country western, and surrealistic folk. The opener, "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35", with it's polka rhythm perhaps best captures the camaraderie of the sessions.   

Dylan's absurdest humor comes through throughout.  "Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat" mocks his less than faithful lover's materialism.  On "Fourth Time Around," allegedly a parody of John Lennon's "Norwegian Wood", follows an absurd courtship between a couple of wise asses that ends with the narrator winning her over, but not before a final warning/insult, "I never asked for your crutch, now don't ask for mine"  Or revisit "Temporarily Like Achilles" and its comic tale of unrequited love with some amazing music evoking the pain.  "Absolutely Sweet Marie" dances through a maze of innuendos and hidden messages in a pastiche of surf music.

Virtually every Dylan album to follow would be compared with Blonde on Blonde. The songs don't really come at you, they swirl.  He had come a long way from the days at Greenwich Village playing for change at the Gaslight or Kettle of Fish.  Now every word he wrote came under close scrutiny and compared along side the likes of the great poets.  

In the spring of 1966 Dylan embarked on a grueling European tour with The Band and gave intense performances in front of hostile audiences divided between those who saw him as a revolutionary/prophet/poet and others who thought him a sellout, or at best an amoral opportunist. Anyone who's watched Scorsese's No Direction Home, Dylan did seem close to the abyss on his 1966 tour of Europe. After falling of his motorcycle in Woodstock, NY on July 29, 1966 he kept a lower profile, focused on raising his family, but never stopped writing.  Much more was yet to come.