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Bob Dylan - More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14 Music Album Reviews

Jokes about the title aside, this payload of alternate takes presents a complex portrait of a complicated time for the singer-songwriter as he made a masterpiece.

The lore has always been that there are two versions of Blood on the Tracks. There’s the one that got released in January 1975—the comeback album that reinvigorated Bob Dylan’s career after a stint in the shadows, the classic that begins with the low hurdy-gurdy of “Tangled Up in Blue” and saunters onward like a sad walk through autumn woods. And then there’s the version that Dylan scrapped—the widely bootlegged, mostly acoustic collection he recorded in four days in New York City but second-guessed weeks before its scheduled release. He rewrote and re-recorded half the songs with a full band at home in Minnesota, in two days just after Christmas 1974. A combination became the definitive Blood on the Tracks.

Anytime during the last 40 years, Sony could have simply released the record’s early version, long known to fans as the “New York Sessions,” and sold it as a simple, digestible lost classic. But that is not how Dylan’s Bootleg Series, now in its 14th volume, operates: Instead, we’ve got the charmingly titled More Blood, More Tracks which, across six discs and 87 recordings, documents every note of those New York sessions and the complete full-band renditions from Minnesota. For more casual fans, there’s a one-CD or double-LP set that features the best alternate take of each song, stripped of overdubs or production effects. And so, a third version of Blood on the Tracks emerges—one that illustrates the vulnerability of the scrapped release, the one-take intimacy of Dylan’s earliest work, and the grandness of the album proper.

Despite its nearly instant reception as a classic, Blood on the Tracks is not a world that Dylan inhabited for long. By the end of 1975, he was already a different person (in full costume) leading the crowd-pleasing Rolling Thunder Revue and working up the epic gypsy-folk ballads of 1976’s Desire. We can now wallow in the moment a little longer. This is not the first time the Dylan camp has offered a box set as an audio documentary. In 2015, The Cutting Edge covered every studio take from 14 months of sessions in the mid-1960s that led to three consecutive breakthroughs: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Put on any disc from that set, and you’ll hear Dylan at a moment of inspiration, fueled by relentless creativity (and endless amphetamines) as he searched for his—and, by extension, rock music’s—future.

A decade later, nearing his mid-30s, he worked with a different energy. More Blood, More Tracks is slow, largely solo, and set in its ways like a sullen dude reading Chekhov in the corner of the bar. There’s occasional piano, pedal steel, drums, and bass, but it’s mostly Dylan alone with his guitar and harmonica. Nearly any other presence seems to unsettle him. In one of the box’s most revealing moments, Mick Jagger visits the studio on the final day of the New York sessions. Clearly spent and unsatisfied, Dylan noodles away at the bluesy “Meet Me in the Morning.” Jagger suggests some slide guitar might liven things up. “No, I don’t want to play slide,” Dylan seethes before giving it a clumsy go to prove his point. When Jagger sheepishly concedes that the song is fine, Dylan gives a bratty little laugh—he wins again.

Unlike The Cutting Edge, Dylan does not rely on accompanists to push these tracks forward. A swooning, full-band “Simple Twist of Fate” is quickly discarded for the sparse, solo one. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” is also a wonder of reduction, as Dylan slowly realizes it can only exist without a drum part. As he repeats its flowery narrative across half-a-dozen takes, it occurs to him that his words are the percussion: “Purple clover, Queen Anne lace/Crimson hair across your face.” The swinging country beat from Richard Crooks can’t help but clash against the consonants. For most of the box set, the creation of Blood on the Tracks seems like a process of refinement. Dylan’s lyrics—precise, constant, breathless—also settle early in the process, minus some pronoun and tense switches. His voice transforms the most, as he navigates these songs like dramatic monologues on the page.

While fans and critics were quick to draw a connection between Dylan’s new material and his private life, including his impending divorce, Dylan has long maintained that these songs are not autobiographical. As presented here, they do not feel memoiristic—at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, they paint a larger portrait of Dylan’s creative vision. “You’ve got yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room,” he famously said about his process during this era. More Blood, More Tracks brings that concept to life in surprisingly vivid ways. This was no desperate bloodletting; every drop was placed just so.

The single-disc edition of the album, featuring all acoustic solo takes, sounds excellent but embryonic: just the present, before the past and future showed up to fuck everything up. No matter where in the process you encounter these songs, it’s hard to go wrong. The very long outlier “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” is either your cup of tea or not; whether a band is trying to recreate its whirling circus atmosphere or Dylan is going it alone doesn’t make much difference. “Idiot Wind” sounds best in its original acoustic form, with all its open spaces and trepidation left in, before Dylan weaponized them against his blasphemers. “If You See Her, Say Hello,” on the other hand, comes alive when his Minnesota bandmates (who, in the liner notes, finally receive credit for their performances) flesh out its baroque, love-drunk daydream of a melody.

As for the outtakes, the only extra song that stood a chance for inclusion on the finished album is a weak spot here. When Dylan attempts “Up to Me,” he struggles with the rhythm of his verses, which are mostly jokes, self-pity, and self-mythology. Similarly, “Call Letter Blues”—likely scrapped in favor of the more abstract “Meet Me in the Morning”—is the only song that brings children into the picture, a call for empathy during a breakup. It rings hollow. Maybe Dylan felt it was too on-the-nose, blood better left between the lines.

Much of More Blood, More Tracks elicits an eerie feeling, a dramatic feedback loop of Dylan’s shifting self-image. It’s not uncommon for the Bootleg Series to leave breadcrumb trails for fans, yet hearing Dylan obsess over these songs about obsession creates an uncanny Synecdoche, New York effect. Spend enough time inside the six-hour set, and you’ll hear Dylan sing over and over again, in a number of warring voices, “I’m goin’ out of my mind.” You’ll hear him curse himself as a “creature void of form.” You’ll hear him try—and eventually fail—to assert, “Somebody’s got to tell the tale/I guess it must be up to me.” At a certain point, you can’t help but believe him.

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