Jack Lawrence tells us why Bob Dylan’s first double album is one of the best of his career
“The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind… It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up” was how Bob Dylan famously described his 1966 double album Blonde on Blonde. As one of the first double albums in popular music, it has developed somewhat of a mystique and reputation, something that often overshadows just how consistently impressive this album remains.
Though many double albums are famous for being bloated or overly lengthy, Blonde on Blonde never overstays its welcome, featuring not only some of the highlights of Dylan’s career, but also some of his most defining statements as an artist. Irritated by the ‘voice of a generation’ epithet thrust upon him by the American media, Dylan’s use of esoteric and surrealist lyrics is best seen on Blonde on Blonde, which abandons many of the socially conscious or protest themes often found in his previous work.
Dylan’s previous effort, Highway 61 Revisited was an album that attracted adoration and scorn in equal measure. Though some claimed it was his best effort yet, Dylan’s initial folk audience saw it as nothing less than a betrayal due to its primary focus on rock instrumentation. Rather than return to his roots or maintain the folk-rock image he had cultivated in the American media, Dylan opted to use a cohort of Nashville recording artists (later famously known as The Band) to support him during the creation of Blonde on Blonde. In these sessions, the folk influences of Dylan’s work were subdued even further, replaced instead with instrumental references to blues, country, flamenco and rock. That being said, the typically ‘Dylan’ elements (guitar, harmonica, vocals) are emphasised as the primary focus of this album, with the mixing very much putting Dylan’s vocals and lyrics at the forefront of the recording.
Love it or hate it, Dylan’s voice is a major part of Blonde on Blonde. The now-Nobel-prize-winning singer wheezes poetics in his nasally and disaffected tone through all of the tracks, much of his delivery being almost unintentionally hilarious and imitable. Regardless, his songwriting was in perfect form on this album, as evidenced by the fact that it remains a rare double album with no filler at all.
The first track, ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’, is built almost entirely around Dylan’s double entendre on the word ‘stoned’. His dazed and slurred delivery on this song seems at first like a thinly veiled drug innuendo, though the lyrics also seem to be a commentary on the reaction Dylan faced from his fans after going electric – ‘they’ll stone you when you’re riding in your car / they’ll stone you when you’re playing your guitar’. The marching band utilised on this track and the later ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way’ is also indicative of Dylan being at his most instrumentally ambitious as of so far in his career.
Following the seemingly less-serious opening tracks, Blonde on Blonde takes a sudden turn into introspective, personal songwriting. ‘Visions of Johanna’, a nocturnal love ballad rumoured to concern former lover Joan Baez is a particular highlight on the album, with its wistful surrealist lyrics including some of the most memorable lines of his career – ‘the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face / but these visions of Johanna have not yet taken my place’.
The personal themes of relationships on the album continue in the tracks ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’ and ‘Just Like a Woman’. The former, a sarcastic anecdote about the narrator’s wife being unfaithful, is an odd blues track that features some of Dylan’s strangest sentiments – ‘I know you think he loves you for your money but I know what he really loves you for… it’s your leopard-skin pill-box hat’. Similarly, ‘Just Like a Woman’ is one of the most paradoxical tracks of Dylan’s career, including spiteful lines that criticise a lover (‘She takes just like a woman’) as well as mournful breakup lyrics – ‘When we meet again / Introduced as friends / Please don’t let on that you knew me when / I was hungry, and it was your world’.
By 1966, Dylan had become largely involved with the drug counterculture, many of these tracks being the result of amphetamine and cannabis binges whilst on tour. The drug-induced haze of Dylan’s personality by 1966 is reflected in his hallucinatory, stream-of consciousness lyrics on tracks like ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’ and the aforementioned ‘Rainy Day Women’. ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile…’, one of the more confusing songs of Dylan’s career, is a surreal country track that features a large cast of characters and details of events with seemingly no relation to each other. Though I have almost no idea what this song is actually ‘about’, the confusing narrative of the lyrics are impressively detailed, with some really odd and memorable quotations – ‘Now the bricks lay on Grand Street / Where the neon madmen climb / They all fall there so perfectly / It all seems so well-timed’.
For an album often so closely associated with Dylan’s personal life, Blonde on Blonde remains an album that has an underrated sense of humour to it. The parodic ‘Fourth Time Around’ recalls The Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’, seeming almost to poke fun at Lennon’s writing and song topics in its odd lyrics and semi-serious delivery. The multiple characters Dylan writes about on Blonde on Blonde are further depicted as ridiculous and nonsensical – ‘your dancing child with his Chinese suit’, ‘he preacher… with headlines stapled to his chest’. These moments of light-heartedness, though entertaining in their own right, also do well to make the album’s moments of introspection and poignancy all the more powerful.
The final side of Blonde on Blonde is taken up entirely by its closer – ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, a track that Dylan claimed at this point was his best work. Supposedly a tribute to his wife Sara, this twelve-minute epic details love, confusion and heartbreak in typically surreal fashion – ‘With your silhouette when the sunlight dims / Into your eyes where the moonlight swims’. The inclusion of this track among many of the album’s ballads makes Blonde on Blonde a strangely affecting and personal album despite its indirect or often esoteric lyrics.
The themes of relationship woes would later continue in Dylan’s 1973 album Blood on the Tracks, an album that is, in many ways, the counterpoint album to Blonde on Blonde. Whereas Blood on the Tracks later opted for minimal instrumentation and direct, autobiographical lyrics, Blonde on Blonde was about as grand and maximalist as it is possible for a folk-rock album to be, remaining just as intelligent and well-constructed as it is entertaining and amusing. The album marked a turning point in Dylan’s career, as months after its release he would be incapacitated by a motorcycle accident, an event that sent the songwriter’s career down yet another completely different path.
Like the blurred photo used for the final album cover, Dylan’s intended meaning on many of these tracks is distorted and unfocused beyond any simple understanding. However, this is what makes it a truly enduring and essential album. Over 50 years later, the “wild mercury sound” of Blonde on Blonde can still be recognised as Dylan’s finest moment.