If Layla is all about being in the anguish of the moment, Blood on the Tracks is about ruminating a few years down the line, when you realize that, for all the pain
you went through, you still have a little bit left over. And it's worth it, every bit.
Insisting to this day it wasn't inspired by his divorce (Bob, you see, has a Ph. D. in rank bullshit), Blood on the Tracks is thought by many to be his finest work, dropping the irony and detached barbs of Blonde on Blonde in favor of a rawer, emotional approach, and even denying the innovations of Highway 61, going back to a lighter, acoustic-based arrangement that nonetheless has a gravity and gently rocking vibe.
Gone is Bob the Merry Verbal Trickster (well...mostly gone, anyway), the Bard who turns lyrics into music through sheer craftsmanship and guile, maintaining a healthy, cinematic distance. No, this is Bob the man, unable to conjure up enough magic to put his reflective pain into some kind of sarcastic denial, and facing, perhaps for the first time, the pure baptism of emotional revelation. The brilliant hyperbole is, for the first time in his career, drawn down, and given sway instead is an efficient and precise lyricism in which metaphor is meant to brutally reveal and accept, not slyly jeer and avoid. All pretense of cool is ripped away, and we're left with a man can tell us what it's like, and make us feel it.
He's hinted as such a capability, and even had moments of similar transcendent honesty. But even the plaintive and beautiful yearning of a song like "I Want You", from Blonde on Blonde, is tempered by dense wordplay and metaphorical trickiness. And the sequence of that album lends itself to divergence and complexity, not acceptance; one is almost too rushed to chase and sample the next surrealistic drama to fully immerse oneself in any one emotion for too long, or to experience the various tastes and colors of the ones that may smack of true vulnerability.
To craft a song cycle built solely around such an honest conceit was a pretty courageous thing to do, artistically and emotionally. He ran the risk of lapsing into sentimentality and hoary self-pity, like many a less gifted troubadour. To reach so deeply and produce an extended work of such richness, and to touch hope and fondness and bravery, even humor, in the midst of such anguish, is something only a true master could achieve.
Oh, there's still some hypnotic imagery to ponder, and some less weighty narratives to enjoy. Side two (or the last five songs, to you poor folks who never got to experience vinyl as an honest medium, rather than a hipster affectation) uses such, to perfect effect. It serves to emphasize and underscore, not chase. Ultimately, it's one of the things that elevates Blood on the Tracks above what would have been, in less talented hands, just another pitiful "pass the razor blades" display.
And if the last verse of "Simple Twist of Fate" doesn't make you throw back a shot, smile, choke back a bittersweet tear, and think about ol' what's her name, wherever she is...then, my friend, you haven't truly lived.