MusicWeekend

How Much Dylan Do We Need?

The Bootleg series once served a useful function, but it has long since tipped over into decadence.

The title of Bob Dylan’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 14: More Blood, More Tracks, out this month, invites a number of obvious jokes, and some are even true. More tracks is an understatement — 87 more, to be exact, strewn across a six-disc, six-hour box set of recordings made during the sessions for Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (1975). Behold outtakes, demos, studio detritus, marginally differentiated versions of the same song. You needn’t worry about more blood, though, for most of these tunes are half-hearted, bare-bones sketches of songs he would subsequently perform with more gusto. They sound anemic.

Dylan has been releasing installments in The Bootleg Series for more than two decades, with gradually diminishing returns. In the ’90s, when Columbia first started releasing bootleg Dylan tapes on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) (1993), some of them had been circulating among hardcore fans for years; they included genuine surprises, original songs he’d never released, weird covers of traditional folk and blues songs, useful live recordings. Sometimes the unearthed documents held clear historical value, like the famous Manchester show captured on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert (1998). Twenty years and 10 box sets later, there’s no stopping now — the archives must be cleared.

The original Blood on the Tracks is an album that combines the tapes from two separate sessions: the initial New York sessions, when Dylan attempted to record Blood on the Tracks as a stark, bereft set of acoustic laments, and then the subsequent Minneapolis recordings, when Dylan, unsatisfied with the initial versions, redid the album with a full band of studio musicians. Since Dylan attracts fans who believe in concepts like The Lost Album and such, a certain amount of fanbase lore around the acoustic New York sessions developed over the years, and the mystery has now been revealed. Every single take from those sessions appears on More Blood, More Tracks — all the endless, quiet, miserable alternate takes a fan could ask for. By contrast, only five recordings from Minneapolis appear on the box set, the five that appeared on the official album.

That More Blood, More Tracks is a dull, doleful listen should be evident from the backstory. The box set reveals that Dylan was right to be unsatisfied with the New York sessions. They’re static and empty, and as they wear on you can hear his frustration having to sing these songs on solo acoustic, bashing his head against the wall. Compare the raging final Minneapolis version of “Idiot Wind,” an eight-minute song whose every second captivates, to the sullen takes here, which last forever; rather than staying mournful the whole way through, the song needs the energy of a full band so it can make its grand turn from righteous anger to defeated empathy.

What you want from a box set of outtakes is juice — songs that didn’t make it to the album, or a superb band meshing in the studio, or energetic live performances, or anything new at all. In the ’60s, Dylan recorded albums quickly and achieved a natural, casual feel, often releasing first takes. Previous installments in The Bootleg Series have occasionally yielded choice outtakes — the third or seventh or whichever take was as compelling as the one on the album. But Blood on the Tracks is the last album you would expect goodies from, because it’s where Dylan finally embraced ’70s standards of studio polish; it’s his subtlest, most delicate, most carefully crafted set of songs.

The idea is to listen to him continually revise the songs, testing out different lyrics and phrases and arrangements, while gradually approaching their Platonic ideals, the perfected forms fans already know by heart — deciding to remove the drums from “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and the slide guitar from “Meet Me in the Morning”; changing the desperate “Maybe he’ll pick her out again” to the sadder, more time-warped “Maybe she’ll pick him out again” in “Simple Twist of Fate”; turning “When something’s not right it must be wrong” into the more forceful “When something’s not right it’s wrong” in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”; revamping whole verses in “Idiot Wind,” and so on. Why else place the five official Minneapolis recordings at the very end of the last disc, as if to signal full creative completion after six hours’ worth of tweaking and chiseling? Since the final versions are the strongest in each case, hearing Dylan’s process in real time tells us nothing new.

Although I hesitate as a music fan to complain about overproduction — on principle, one wants more rather than less music in the world, no matter what it is — the Dylan industry’s apparent need to expel his table scraps bespeaks a dubious flavor of auteur worship — the kind of adulation that has always attached itself to Dylan and won’t stop until every second of the man’s life has been examined and documented. It reinforces the Rolling Stone/boomer-era critical narrative about the ’60s as a golden age for music, when rock’s greatest geniuses emerged, the pinnacle of Western civilization, never to be topped again.

Releasing the gloomy acoustic tapes also implies a spurious view of the original album as a raw expressionist howl of pain — Dylan, in the midst of divorce, baring his tortured soul in a plaintive breakup song cycle — which may indeed be true but ignores the complexity of how his canny ability to simulate a howl of pain dovetails with his skill at constructing cultural moments and assuming personae.

Anyway, how much Dylan music do we need? In an oversaturated musical economy, where every year more music comes out than a single person could ever listen to, obsessive completism is inevitable; as long as capitalism produces consumer objects, people will feel the need to catalog them, and as long as rock songwriters inspire hyperbolic reverence, trivial moments will get excessively scrutinized due to mere association. There’s no escaping the urge. Fixating so totally on a single figure strikes me as a particularly perverse way to go about it, though. I’m not sure where or whether to draw the line, but if the first few Bootleg Series volumes served a useful function, officially releasing music that fans had been passing around for years, the project has long since tipped over into decadence. More Blood, More Tracks suggests the archives have simply run out of interesting material.

It is a testament to the beauty and durability of Dylan’s music that Blood on the Tracks even remains listenable after immersion in the box set — after hearing these songs repeated a dozen times, slightly adjusted and rehashed, beaten into the ground. I find this comforting. Although he’s been subjected to more hagiography than anyone, all the rockism in the world will never spoil Dylan. The wily old fox is always one step ahead, for there’s no actor anywhere better than the jack of hearts.

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