Album Review: Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”

Bob Dylan (1966) Image may be subject to copyright.

Among Bob Dylan’s hit records, his seventh album with Columbia Records, Blonde on Blonde (1966) is a timeless amalgamation of folk-rock-blues that interrogates each stage of love: the concurrent visions, leading with the heart’s truth, and the strange, lasting hold it may have. Simply labeling Blonde on Blonde a breakup album is underselling its achievements in fusing both funk and Nashville blues into a cohesive, fun project. Its critically-acclaimed predecessor, Highway 61 Revisited was renowned for its religious undertones and notable features but Blonde on Blonde shifted the focus to Dylan’s romantic reflections as he married his first wife, Sara. His overflowing creativity and on-the-road pace with this album’s production resulted in his first double LP. Across its fourteen tracks, the album is filled with organ runs, concluding harmonica solos, and testaments to Dylan’s storytelling abilities.

The first side of the album introduces Dylan’s ideal proportion of funk and blues, characterized by Robbie Robertson’s meandering notes and bounce. Dylan converses with his band’s sound in “Visions of Johanna”, one of the album’s focal points. The track’s bass-heavy groove is likely to hypnotize the listener on the first listen before the song’s substance as a seven-minute romantic epic is realized. His lead vocals agree with the band’s deeply contemplative attitude in the chorus but Dylan chooses to stray in each verse while expressing his nocturnal feelings for Johanna, understood to be his previous love, Joan Baez, as he tries to live elsewhere. Moreover, “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” takes liberties in its pace and guitar performances while Dylan doubts a connection’s integrity and assumes his personal power as he walks away. Each verse reads similarly on the lyric sheet but Dylan’s vocals personalize each stanza. This track’s bounce stems from the Fender Electric XII-trombone synergy, adding tempo up the usual Bob Dylan folk song (similar to a ska performance).

At this time in his career, Bob Dylan was already considered an excellent storyteller and known to make tasteful intonations in his voice — ”I Want You” struck me as a song that I couldn’t help but love, despite its ever-winding delivery. The more I hear it, the more I appreciate its desperate honesty; building on the hopefully romantic themes of the album, the track punctuates the sentiment of it’s previous track, “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” Dylan chooses to ride the bass guitar closely across its run-time and adds a dimension of vulnerability to each line of the chorus. Consistently dragging out the final syllable, usually the long ‘u’ vowel sound, paints a picture of Dylan yearning for someone he cannot reach in every way he can, leaving the deciding harmonica solo to fill the space between them.

“Just Like A Woman” responds to this scene as one of Dylan’s best ballads ever. An acoustic fingerstyle sway leads the song to a blues-quality and sometimes follows Dylan into his elusive vocal dances. Similar to “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”, the track’s chorus fills a majority of the space but Dylan’s work in each verse provides a snapshot of a woman coming into her own, complicating his understanding of her as a romantic partner. Further, Dylan chooses to directly address this person beyond she/her pronouns in the final chorus: “You make love just like a woman, yes, you do / Then you ache just like a woman / But ya’ break just like a little girl” As a songwriting device, this shift in focus adds confrontation, assertion, and wraps up an a quasi-narrative within the album.

The album is elevated from an forgotten Americana record to potentially one of the best Bob Dylan records of all time by its big-band moments and exciting performances. “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” features a valiance similar to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run: rising piano runs in the chorus, heavy organ participation, and a vocally-elevated Bob Dylan across the chorus. Kicking off the album from the hindsight-mirror is a staple of Dylan’s songwriting but the track’s position in the album electrifies the preceding. He uses the final line of each verse to build the chorus and delivers an honest confession: “But, sooner or later, one of us must know / That you just did what you’re supposed to do / Sooner or later, one of us must know / That I really did try to get close to you.” Taking a step away from the more intimate work of 1965, this track establishes another potential sound for Dylan — a sound he turned to in albums to come, such as Desire (1976) and Time Out of Mind (1997).

He conceptually adapts to this sound-scale and displays a rock-blues capacity in “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”; he doesn’t choose to utilize the brass section like the aforementioned track but leans into the fluid guitar performances of Dylan himself and Robbie Robertson. Filling a lot of the space with layers of guitar, the song is curious about a woman wearing an iconic cap. Though simple, this curiosity is commanded by the band, proceeding forward with each piano-drum bounce of the blues genre. Dylan successfully fuses the rock and blues sounds on “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”. Minimal guitar licks decorate Dylan’s lyrics in each stanzas and the percussion joins the organ tastefully, to create a climactic, wondrous track and a sonic snapshot of the album’s potential form.

Out of his series of albums released from 1965–1966, Blonde on Blonde is undoubtedly my favorite. The album’s writing can be placed against his other heartbreak-album, Tangled Up In Blue (1975) Instead of a collection of sultry ballads, Dylan’s exploration of the heart consistently reigns proud and perceptive. From this juxtaposition of attitudes, he defies genres in order to combine both rock, blues, and folk. This new blend of genres can’t be explained in-full. But to this day, it is Dylan’s sound to own.

Listen to the album here.

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Mason Stoutamire

Mason Stoutamire

UCI Literary Journalism Student, Big Brother, and Music Fan