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Why Bob Dylan's 'Tangled Up in Blue' is a Modern Masterpiece

Bob Dylan relaxing in the studio in Santa Monica in September 1980. © Arthur Rosato

Bob Dylan has undoubtedly made many great records in his time. From his 1960s heyday when he was channelling what he referred to as that “wild mercury sound” to his later albums like Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft. Even albums that were initially critically and commercially sniffed at—like his so-called Christian period—have now been reassessed as essential Dylan.

But one of his most celebrated and beloved albums—and one of his most accessible—for everyone from superfans, Dylanologists, casual listeners, those who hate his voice, and your newborn kid who you’re initiating into the Nobel-winner’s oeuvre, is Blood on the Tracks.

Bob Dylan hanging out on the streets of Portland, Orgeon prior to performing there as part of his Gospel Tour in January 1980. © Arthur Rosato

It was written when Dylan was going through a tough period with his wife Sara (she filed for divorce two years after its release in 1975), and as such is considered to be highly autobiographical (check out “Idiot Wind” for some savage put downs). Although, Dylan has typically obfuscated that idea writing in Chronicles, his memoir, “I would even record an entire album based on Chekhov short stories. Critics thought it was autobiographical – that was fine.”

It features as its opening track what could be considered Dylan’s greatest song, for those who like to consider such things, “Tangled Up in Blue”.

Bob Dylan performing onstage in 1980 during his US Gospel Tour. © Arthur Rosato

In the video below from YouTube channel Polyphonic they take this poetic, confounding, mesmerising and complex track and look at why it’s so highly considered. Polyphonic calls it “nothing short of a musical and lyrical masterpiece”, claiming that, not only is it one of the best songs in Dylan’s career, but “one of the greatest works of art in the modern age.”

That’s quite a claim, so what makes it such a classic? Well, firstly its use of time and structure is intricate and masterful. Because, while it’s partly a love story about a man and woman meeting—a somewhat conventional subject for a song—its use of time throughout the song’s narrative is anything but conventional. It jumps about, laying waste to chronology, turning it into what some consider a Cubist song.

Bob Dylan on stage in Montreal, Canada in April 1980 during Bob Dylan's Gospel Tour. © Arthur Rosato

What Picasso did for painting, “Tangled Up in Blue” does for songwriting. It changes from first to third person narration, twists from the present to a memory to the future, throwing in references and metaphor all while never deviating from the thrills of a good yarn.

The video notes how, when Dylan was writing the song he was studying under painter and philosopher Norman Raeben (in fact, Raeben’s influence supposedly had such a profound effect on Dylan’s outlook, that his wife Sara felt she no longer understood him, and it partly led to their marriage breakup).

Quoting the liner notes from Biograph the videos notes that Dylan wrote about the composition of “Tangled Up in Blue”, “I was just trying to make it like a painting where you can see the different parts but then you can also see the whole of it.”

And you could say he succeeded.

Bob Dylan in Portland during the second stage of his Gospel Tour in 1980. © Arthur Rosato

Along with the structure and twisting narrative, the song is also full of passages that conjure a kind of reverie, referencing 15th century poems, slavery, Rimbaud and delivering plenty of humour too. It’s a song that is full of myth and mystery, but can also just be listened to and enjoyed without having to dig too deep. It’s simply a great melody.

In his closing remarks, Polyphonic notes that there's plenty left still to untangle about the song, “‘Tangled Up in Blue’ is an astounding feat by Bob Dylan and I get the feeling that we’re only just starting to understand now how important it is as a work of art.” he states.

Watch the video below. You can check out more of Polyphonic’s videos on his YouTube channel.

Rockarchive is delighted to be able to offer these iconic Bob Dylan images along with many more as limited edition photographic prints which you can buy here.

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