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.
“Meet Me in the Morning” by Jack White and Bob Dylan
Dylan has borrowed from the blues throughout his career, a tradition very much in line with his folksinger tutelage. And if ever a Dylan record warranted a blues number, it would be Blood on the Tracks. “Meet Me in the Morning” turns to the form to shove Dylan’s protagonist directly in the storm’s eye of his pain, allowing him to wail and feel the sting that only the blues can relate. It’s fitting then that Jack White — a guitarist with as much reverence as any contemporary rock artist for the genre — joined Dylan onstage in 2007 to add guitar and vocals to Dylan’s first-ever live performance of the song. White adds an extra thump and some reverent eccentricity to Dylan’s crack band in a performance that has since down in the annals of Dylan’s legendary Never Ending Tour.
“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” by Joan Baez
The gallows cabaret of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” does its best and succeeds at sticking out on Blood on the Tracks. Its length, barnyard hoedown sound, and dark storytelling make it another one of those songs that doesn’t scream out to be covered. However, if there is one artist out there undaunted by Dylan’s catalog, it’s folksinger, activist, and one-time Dylan girlfriend Joan Baez, who not only was among the first artists to cover Dylan’s songs in the ’60s but also helped thrust him into the spotlight. Baez included a version (complete with an extra verse from Dylan’s original recording) on her 1976 live album, From Every Stage, lending the gravitas of her classic folksinging voice to the perilous tale. It’s even been said that Dylan’s lyrics to this song inspired Baez’s future hit “Diamonds & Rust”.
“If You See Her, Say Hello” by Jeff Buckley
The mandolin and wafting organ coupled with Dylan’s reticence (“She might think that I’ve forgotten her/ Don’t tell her it isn’t so”) on “If You See Her, Say Hello” arguably paint the songwriter at his most reflective and vulnerable on Blood on the Tracks. Like so many songs on the record, we find Dylan bouncing between several emotions: heartache, regret, gratitude, and hopefulness. Not many singers can carry that type of emotional weight on their shoulders, but the late Jeff Buckley was one of the few up to the task. Buckley’s clunky guitar, drawn-out notes, unpredictable phrasing, and full-throated bursts not only capture these emotions, but the song’s improvisational sensibilities actually seem to add to the artist’s sincerity. This is the precise opposite of by the numbers.
“Shelter from the Storm” by Cassandra Wilson
One of Dylan’s great songwriting accomplishments on Blood on the Tracks, “Shelter from the Storm” looks at a relationship from all different points of track along its journey. We find its weary traveler taken in by a woman, with subsequent verses skipping between his departure, additional memories of his arrival, and reflection on their final falling out. In some ways, it’s a more honest depiction of how our minds piece together memories to build a version of the past, but it also allows Dylan to express the idea that the pain he once felt (“Now there’s a wall between us/ Something there’s been lost”) has ultimately led to the gratefulness he later pledges (“I’ll always do my best for her/ On that I give my word”). Jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson lends her huskier voice to the account, adding to the song’s mythical vibe and once more showing that these songs can work from a variety of perspectives beyond Dylan’s nasally, masculine delivery.
“Buckets of Rain” by Beth Orton and M. Ward
Most of us, at one time or another, have probably thought of “Buckets of Rain” as that slight, little letdown after “Shelter from the Storm”. That’s less to do with the song itself and much more to do with the overwhelming impact of its predecessor. But more than a cursory listen and dismissal of “Buckets” takes us back to the ideas of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”. So much of life is fickle and fleeting (“Life is sad, life is a bust”), and while Dylan might be the loyal and dependable type, that won’t prevent him from potentially getting hurt. It’s interesting then to hear Beth Orton and M. Ward trade verses, thereby completing the male-female dynamic and capturing the two-way-nature of this, or any, relationship. That Dylan’s observations from the male point of view can work as a back-and-forth between genders might also suggest something about why so many females have been drawn to cover Blood on the Tracks over the years.