Blood On The Tracks has been labelled Bob Dylan’s most vulnerable and transparent album. Released on January 20, 1975, the album was a product of a creative resurgence that came from the disintegration of his 11 year marriage to his first wife, Sara Lowndes.
A decade before Blood On The Tracks was released, Bob and Sara were happy newlyweds. Seeking a quieter life with his quickly growing family, Dylan moved his family away from the invasive expectations of fame to rural Woodstock, NY. His motorcycle crash in 1966 further prompted his evolution from a drug using rock and roll icon into a dedicated father whose “deepest dream” was to live a structured family life. During this period, Dylan produced what would become known as the “basement tapes” with The Band and three studio albums: John Wesley Harding (1968), Nashville Skyline (1969) and New Morning (1970) – all of which failed to thrill listeners at the time. By the end of the decade he was beginning to feel the pull away from his quiet family life.
In late 1969 he moved his family from Woodstock back to his old neighbourhood of Greenwich Village. Feeling uncomfortable in his old stomping grounds, he moved to Mexico in 1972 with his family where he was working on the movie set for Billy The Kid. It was during this period that his marriage began to weaken. Moving from Mexico to California in 1973 only encouraged the fragility of their marriage. Although his album Planet Waves (1973) included themes of marital happiness, he began having affairs with multiple women (including Columbia Records executive Ellen Bernstein and actress Ruth Tyrangiel) and by early 1974 had returned to touring stadiums with The Band – and without Sara. The old Dylan was back. He continued his old habits of smoking and drinking heavily and by summer, he and Sara had separated.
It was during their separation that Dylan wrote Blood On The Tracks. In some ways, the album was a return to his roots. Dylan retreated to his home state of Minnesota to write the album on a farm he shared with his brother. The acoustic accompaniment of the record reflects back to the style of his first two albums. 33-year-old Dylan wrote all of his self-proclaimed “private songs” over the course of 2 months. While his girlfriend Ellen Bernstein visited the Minnesota farm often, the absent Sara was the focus of the album.
The themes of the songs range from reflection (“Tangled Up In Blue” describes how Sara had been married when they first met and was soon to be divorced as she would leave her husband Hans Lowndes for Dylan, “Shelter From The Storm” describes the nurturing protection Sara provided him as he was able to abandon his famous persona and retreat with the conventional wife she was happy to be) to anger (“Idiot Wind” was a severe lashing against Sara and is viewed as the stark opposite of his earlier love song “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” that he had written for her) to regret (“If You See Her Say Hello” and “You’re A Big Girl Now” are melancholy parting songs about her). While he would deny that the album was about his marriage in the ’80s, after its release, he reacted to a journalist’s statement that she liked the album by saying, “A lot of people tell me they enjoyed that album. It’s hard for me to relate to people enjoying that kind of pain.”
But people did enjoy the heartache-inspired album. Blood On The Tracks sold more than 1 million copies within two months of its release proving he was still able to achieve the type of success he had reached with his albums in the mid-sixties. It is one of Dylan’s highest-selling albums, has earned the certification of double-platinum by the RIAA and reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart topping Bruce Springsteen’s iconic Born To Run album.
While it is widely regarded as one of his best albums, it represents the painful collapse of Dylan’s marriage to Sara. Their son, singer-songwriter and musician Jakob Dylan, has described the emotionally charged lyrics of Blood On The Tracks as his “parents talking.” Following the release of the album, the couple attempted to reunite more than once. Bob wrote the song “Sara” (a sentimental love song that would appear on his next album, Desire) in an attempt to win her back. However, it wasn’t long until their relationship bottomed out for good. On his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, Bob once again began sleeping with Joan Baez, among others. During a televised performance on his 35th birthday, Sara and their children watched as he howled his scornful “Idiot Wind” which he would later release for a second time on his 1976 album Hard Rain. Sara filed for divorce on March 1, 1977 and was awarded half of his worth ($36 million) when it was finalized on June 30th.
Blood On The Tracks was a creative burst of rapid and raw songwriting that became his most mature album to date. Its success reaffirmed his status as the leading songwriter of his era and quieted those who speculated whether or not he would ever again achieve the success he had with his iconic albums in the mid-sixties. Michael Gray (writer, critic, and Bob Dylan expert) described Blood On The Tracks as “… the most strikingly intelligent album of the seventies.”