On it’s release in 1975, Blood on the Tracks was seen as a return. To Columbia Records, to songs based on his experiences, and to form. After years playing with The Band, dabbling in rock, country and with all sorts of electric instruments, here he was: playing an album that was just him and an acoustic guitar, more or less.
Indeed, his 15th studio record isn’t just usually seen as a high-water mark, but as the years pass, it’s become shorthand for his last major statement: “His best since Blood on the Tracks” is the sort of line that pops up in reviews of his later records.
And with the release of the six-CD box (there’s also a one-disc edition, too) The Bootleg Series Vol. 14: More Blood, More Tracks, you’d think there would be a wealth of riches to dig into. Well here’s the thing: it’s not really there.
The sessions for Blood on the Tracks started in New York, during September of 1974. Compared to earlier album sessions, it was a stripped down affair. Dylan was joined by bassist Tony Brown and three guitarists: Charles Brown III, Eric Weissberg, and Barry Kornfeld. For some takes, drummer Richard Crooks and keyboardist Tony Brown were also there. But generally the music was loose, and acoustic folk. He recorded more than an album’s worth of material, and as 1974 came to a close, the album was readied for release – until Dylan changed his mind, and re-recorded half of the record in Minnesota.
Over the years, the so-called New York Sessions have been extensively bootlegged, but generally from a test pressing that found it’s way into trading circles. This new set goes back to those sessions, and then some, presenting likely every take, scrap and false start from this period.
There are interesting parts. There’s album outtakes like “Up to Me,” “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” and “Call Letter Blues.” Loads of alternates, too: a slow, swirling version of “You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go” with organ, versions of “Simple Twist of Fate” with drums and an electric guitar.
But the thing about this era is how little there really was. Dylan went into the studio with a handful of songs, all of them strong, and worked them into shape in the studio. There’s changes between takes, but it’s not like there’s any magical songs that have been lost or overlooked. Some instrumentation here, a tempo there. Generally, the stuff he recorded is the stuff he released.
Whereas earlier volumes of the Bootleg Series either shined a light into an overlooked era – like last year’s look into his born-again years, Trouble No More – or have featured stuff that’d been heavily bootlegged over the years, this material is both new and familiar. Hardcore fans have likely listened to this album so many times it’s engrained into their memory; more casual ones may wonder why they need 11 takes of “You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome…”
So while the Dylanologists along us may enjoy getting lost in this, and others may have fun sequencing their own version, the single-CD edition (a first for this long-running series!) will probably scratch most people’s itches: it’s essentially an alternate version of the record, featuring mostly unreleased material.
But when taken as a whole, what this set really does is confirm what we knew all along: Blood on the Tracks wasn’t just Dylan coming back into his own, but was him at his best. And really, did we need another five CDs to tell us that?