As Blood on the Tracks celebrates the bootleg treatment with the release of More Blood, More Tracks, we look at several of the many artists so inspired by the album’s songs that they gave their own take a try as well. Welcome to Best Covers.
Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks changed how popular songwriters write and sing about relationships forever. The album’s 10 songs are drenched in pain but never wallow. They’re teeming with a vitality unmatched by most breakup albums — a rare mix of raw emotion, belying arrangements, and brutal honesty. But while every artist who has ever listened to Blood on the Tracks probably has borrowed from it or tried their hand at a sad song in a similar vein, it remains a daunting album to cover.
Yes, these are great songs — the kind songwriters often wish they had written themselves — but it’s tough to get inside a song so emotional, so direct (for Dylan anyway), and, yes, so personal (whether or not we’ll ever know who, if anyone, these songs are about). Covering any of them, in some way, feels like trespassing because Dylan bares so much. It’s one thing to witness and feel his pain as listeners, but quite another to step inside it and make it our own.
Still, many artists have tried over the years — probably more than should have but less than you’d imagine — to make some sense of them for themselves without getting too tangled up in Dylan’s blues. So, here are 10 times artists have tried and, if not succeeded, at least made us appreciate and rethink just how inimitable and groundbreaking Blood on the Tracks remains all these decades later.
More Blood, More Tracks, the latest installment in Dylan’s enduring Bootleg Series, is currently on sale. The deluxe edition includes more than 70 previously unreleased recordings from the sessions behind Blood on the Tracks, specifically outtakes, studio banter, false starts, and alternate versions of “Tangled Up in Blue”, “Simple Twist of Fate”, and “Shelter From the Storm”. Stream a preview of the collection below via Spotify.
“Tangled up in Blue” by Indigo Girls
Critics often fall back on the cliche of an opening track setting the tone for an album, but Dylan could not have better clued in listeners that they were in for a completely different look at relationships, heartache, and vulnerability than he did with “Tangled up in Blue”. And while The War on Drugs have matched Dylan’s “I got to get to her somehow” immediacy in their live version and KT Tunstall has brought a rhythmic and throaty vocal intensity to hers, Indigo Girls are one of the few acts that seem to live the song rather than cover it. Part of their expansive 1995 live album, 1200 Curfews, Emily Saliers and Amy Ray put themselves in Dylan’s boots from the greatest opening lyric in history — “Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’/ I was layin’ in bed/ Wonderin’ if she’d changed at all/ If her hair was still red” — right down to their harmonies on the song’s emphatic refrain, creating an incredible ebb and flow of pacing, style, and emotion that ring as true as Dylan’s own telling of the romantic quest.
“Simple Twist of Fate” by Jeff Tweedy
As far as I can tell, no song on Blood on the Tracks has been covered by major artists more than “Simple Twist of Fate”. Diana Krall, Bryan Ferry, and Joan Baez have all recorded the song, which sits in such a strange, little pocket — a clunky, almost indifferent strum that feels like a bumpkin staring at the bright lights of the city for the first time, coupled with a tone that shifts between bemused storyteller and the regretful wails of a man who suspects something more could’ve been. It’s hard to imagine anyone better than the nasally, thoughtful songwriter Jeff Tweedy having a go at this song, and while he and the accompaniment may sit up straight when a slouch might’ve worked better, the Wilco frontman perfectly taps into the emotion of alternative lines like “He woke and she was gone/ He didn’t see nothing but the dawn/ He got out of bed, put his clothes back on/ Pushed back the blind.” It’s a valiant attempt at such a terribly difficult song to inhabit.
“You’re a Big Girl Now” by My Morning Jacket
The gentle interplay between guitar and piano on “You’re a Big Girl Now” makes it one of the few songs on Blood on the Tracks where the arrangement doesn’t belie the painful subject matter. It also bares the type of emotional honesty that can’t be faked. To tap into that level of rawness and vulnerability, My Morning Jacket’s frontman Jim James slows down the proceedings, keeps the backing spare, and pushes his vocals upfront until it sounds like he’s moaning into the abyss — or at least from metaphorically in the rain to out there on dry land. It’s a tact that works, and we can feel the desperation in lines like “I can change, I swear” and the devastation in others such as “Like a corkscrew to my heart/ Ever since we’ve been apart.” It’s a big win and an even bigger undertaking.
“Idiot Wind” by Hootie and the Blowfish
Dylan may claim that Blood on the Tracks deals in characters more than confessionals, but the vitriol dripping from “Idiot Wind” suggests a frustration and anxiety that hit damn close to home. It’s as scathing a song as Dylan has ever written — without the trade-off of the elation or humor of earlier put-downs like “Positively 4th Street” and “Like a Rolling Stone” — and feels far too personal to cover when it means having to snarl, “You hurt the ones that I love best/ And cover up the truth with lies/ One day you’ll be in the ditch/ Flies buzzin’ around your eyes/ Blood on your saddle.” That’s not exactly a lyric you can feign. So, while few artists have mustered up the courage, or purpose, to cover “Idiot Wind”, you have to at least admire the chutzpah of Hootie and the Blowfish for lifting an entire half-verse for their hit “Only Wanna Be with You”. And while use of the lyric led to a hefty out-of-court settlement for Dylan, you have to imagine even the icon would admit that borrowing a lyric from Blood on the Tracks for such an upbeat downer of a love song somehow makes sense.
“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” by Miley Cyrus ft. Johnzo West
The sounds of Blood on the Tracks rarely suggest pure devastation. Strange of all might be the bouncing, playfully phrased “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, a song that mixes the jubilation of a present dalliance with the disheartening letdown of the inevitable writing on the wall. That’s an incredibly tough balance to strike, and few would predict that ex-Hannah Montana pop star Miley Cyrus might be capable of walking that tightrope. However, Cyrus has shown several nods to rock history in her short career, and while she never quite captures the ebullience of the original, she’s wise enough, particularly on the song’s bridge, to keep this hodgepodge of emotions a relatively upbeat affair. She’s got the spirit right even if the execution isn’t quite down pat.
Consequence of Sound and Sony bring you an exploration of legendary albums and their ongoing legacy with The Opus. Hosted by Paula Mejia, the first installment revolves around Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks in conjunction with the new Bootleg Series release, More, Blood, More Tracks. Subscribe now.