Released on January 20th, 1975, Blood on the Tracks was many records – in conception, execution and rapid change of mind – on its way to canonization: Bob Dylan’s greatest album of the Seventies and, as much as the singer has denied it since, the most emotionally direct body of songs he has ever committed to a single LP. It was an album born amid a crisis of family, largely composed in retreat – on Dylan’s farm in Minnesota – and initially recorded in New York as his nine-year marriage to the former Sara Lowndes broke down. Blood on the Tracks was also saved, appropriately, by family. David Zimmerman, Dylan’s younger brother, arranged the last-minute sessions in Minneapolis with local musicians that became half of the final sequence.
All but five of the 87 tracks on the six-CD super-forensic edition of More Blood, More Tracks comprise the entirety of Dylan’s sessions in mid-September, 1974 at A&R Studios – the former Columbia facility where he made his first albums a decade earlier – as he wrestles with the bones and language of his new songs, across a range of acute reflection and romantic turmoil. Over two CDs from September 16th alone, Dylan runs through eight of the eventual album’s ten songs in a variety of tests. They include the barbed farewell in “You’re a Big Girl Now” and the crime-and-revenge allegory “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” both solo and acoustic, as if it was still 1963; the warm resignation of “Simple Twist of Fade” with Eric Weissberg’s progressive-country band Deliverance; and “Idiot Wind,” Dylan’s jeremiad at its most stark and seething over just his guitar and a bass.
But a single shot that day at the yearning blues “Meet Me in the Morning” – with Deliverance plus steel guitarist Buddy Cage of the New Riders of the Purple Sage – is the only keeper. Instead, over the next three days, Dylan – supposedly the king of one-and-done in the studio – keeps pushing through the guilt and rescue in “Shelter From the Storm,” “Buckets of Rain”‘s plain-spoken promise and the slippery wordplay of the drifter’s escape “Up to Me,” mostly in a rhythmic minimalism of voice, guitar and Deliverance bassist Tony Brown. What emerges across those repeated takes and Dylan’s decision to sideline most of that work (including “Up to Me,” left unreleased until the 1985 box set Biograph) is a record that, at the time, would have felt like a rear-view triumph, a step back to the dusky simplicity of 1967’s John Wesley Harding in songs that crackled with the immediate tensions of Dylan’s middle age.
Heard now, these alternate performances – some of which appeared on an early, rejected test pressing – are a revelation of process, showing Dylan at his most certain and searching at the same time: always going for a master take even as he edits and shades his telling along the way, changing tempos, settings and vocal approach. He was still rewriting lyrics at the Minneapolis sessions, a month before Blood on the Tracks‘ release and included at the end of this deluxe set. But the natural buoyance of those musicians was the right call for “Lily,” the fond memory and accepted loss in “Tangled Up in Blue” and even “Idiot Wind,” driving and fortifying Dylan’s rage.
Yet Dylan also knew when he hit perfection and a nerve, because he stayed there. “All the people we used to know/They’re an illusion to me now,” he sings in the first New York take of “Tangled Up in Blue,” in a casual drawl against that solitary bass. “But me, I’m still on the road/Headin’ for another joint” – an admission that was there, with greater urgency and vocal clarity, in Minneapolis. More Blood, More Tracks does not contradict the choices Dylan made on the way to Blood on the Tracks. It fills in his road to wisdom.