The Unpopular Argument: Bob Dylan Edition -- "Desire" > "Blood on the Tracks"

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I teased this in the Morning Mix last Friday and it seemed to rile up a few people. To answer one commenter, no I'm not trying to be cooler-than-thou -- that just happens naturally. I actually do think "Desire" is a better album than its predecessor, the widely-lauded "Blood on the Tracks." So let's use this as a launching point for a new series. Think of it as a cousin to Please Explain to Me.

Now I'll freely admit that I love "Desire" maybe a bit more than I should. I'd put myself as an OTIV Dylan fan, and "Desire" is my favorite of his non-canon albums. One of the only things I have hanging on the walls of my apartment is a Steve Keene painting of the album's cover. I love the fiddle that's all over it. I love the way Dylan sings with such conviction. I love the overall vibrancy. I love that he gets back to the storyteller mode of his early folk stuff, sometimes with even more anger ("Hurricane"), sometimes just to spin a yarn ("Isis"). I love the playfulness of "Mozambique" and "Black Diamond Bay." I love the way he sings in Spanish on "Romance in Durango." I love the aching devotion of "Sara." I even love the album from which the cover image was "borrowed."

There's no other Dylan record in his massive discography that sounds like "Desire." He never sang with such gusto or wrote such ridiculously rollicking songs again. Plus, the live shows from this era use the album's sound as a template and they are some of his very best. It's another side of Bob Dylan. (For the record: "Joey" sucks. Hard. It'd be a lot easier to defend this album if that song wasn't on there.)

Just because I don't like "Blood on the Tracks" as much as "Desire" doesn't mean that I think it's a bad album. Of course not. I mean, come on. It's a brilliant album.

It all comes down to personal preferences, of course. But since I'm a hardcore zero-sum kinda dude, let's explore what's wrong with "Blood on the Tracks." It might be a cop-out of a main argument, but the fact that the (widely available) bootleg version of the album ("Blood on the Tapes") is far superior than the official version is impossible to overlook.

"Blood on the Tracks" sounds like an album released in 1975. I don't consider that a good thing. It's got that slick, shiny production, which doesn't serve these intensely personal songs very well.

On "Tapes," "Tangled Up in Blue" finds Dylan unaccompanied, just voice and guitar, and the stark arrangement is much more effective. (Another version adds bass to the mix; it's still better than the full band version on the official release.) As for the songs themselves, they're almost all winners, but it's an exhausting listen, delving into Dylan's personal matters like that.

In a comment about why I didn't like "BOTT," agl132 offered up "you have no human emotions" as a possibility. If only! But I will admit that having the curtain pulled back like this isn't my favorite way to experience Dylan. That smirking mystery is gone. What we have instead is one of the best confessional singer-songwriter albums ever. And I'll take a lively set of story-songs instead.

By David Malitz |  May 6, 2009; 12:13 PM ET Dylan , The Unpopular Argument
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Count me as a vote for Desire as well. It was actually the first Dylan album I ever heard -- my dad used to play it in the car on long trips when I was a kid, and it's always somewhat been my touchstone for Dylan albums.

Posted by: rogo2000 | May 6, 2009 2:27 PM

Of COURSE Desire is better! Jacques Levy wrote the lyrics! The man was the greatest songwriter of his day, and everything he touched turned platinum. The only way Desire could be better is if Jacques Levy sang all the songs, too. (And maybe played the drums during the trickier bits....)

Saying a Jacques Levy record is better than a non-Jacques Levy record is like saying your car is faster when Richard Petty drives it -- it's a non-argument!

Posted by: Ronnie76 | May 6, 2009 2:55 PM

Always happy to take the bait, David.

Your original quote was "Only one of those is even in the debate for one of his top five albums." I think you should have said "one of MY top five Dylan albums," to clearly express your personal preference.

You make good arguments for why you prefer Desire to BOTT, and I won't argue with them. All I can say is, your desire for Desire is subjectively yours, and not an objective statement, as I think you implied in your original quote. Attempts at objectivity in music writing (intentional or accidental) are usually doomed to fail. :-)

Personally, I find the fiddle in Desire kind of annoying. But I'll give it a new listen one of these days, based on your recommendation.

Posted by: SSMD1 | May 6, 2009 4:11 PM

Well now this begs the question, If not Desire or BOTT, what albums wind up in your top five Dylan canon?

Posted by: walkdp77 | May 6, 2009 4:58 PM

Gee, and I thought I was the only one who felt this way. BOTT is terrific, a classic, etc. But Desire shreds it--and is much more listenable, to boot. Bravo for empowering those of us who feel similiarly to you!

Incidentally, back in the day, Rolling Stone devoted an entire edition to reviews of BOTT--takes from every critic they could find. That's how important it was at the time. A big comeback for Bob, good songwriting, an Important Work. Desire--released into the teeth of the Rolling Thunder tour--never got the same respect from critics, and I could never figure out why. Maybe it was just the timing.

Posted by: Eyewitness1 | May 6, 2009 6:54 PM

I think the difference is between "I like this album more" and "I think this album is better." I personally like Wilco's AM more than any of their albums, but I would absolutely say that Summerteeth is a better actual album. Sometimes my favorite and the "best" album line up. I think Siamese Dream (by a band that will not be named), is both their best album and my favorite album.

Posted by: M__N | May 7, 2009 9:34 AM

Well now this begs the question, If not Desire or BOTT, what albums wind up in your top five Dylan canon?

Posted by: walkdp77 | May 6, 2009 4:58 PM

well i think you'd have to be pretty crazy to not put "bringing it all back home," "highway 61 revisited," "blonde and blonde" and "freewheelin'" in there, right? so that only leaves one spot. if "basement tapes" counts, that probably gets it, though i'm also partial to "another side." then there's "desire" and "JWH." then i'd put "BOTT" right after those.

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I think the difference is between "I like this album more" and "I think this album is better."

Posted by: M__N | May 7, 2009 9:34 AM

come on, stand strong with your convictions. if you like it best then it IS THE BEST!

Posted by: PostRockDavid | May 7, 2009 9:39 AM

All-time, personal top 5 Dylan albums:

1. Highway 61 Revisited
2. Bringing It All Back Home
3. Blood on the Tracks
4. Time Out of Mind
5. Love and Theft

Freewheelin' and Blonde on Blonde would be in the Top 10. Desire is nowhere to be found. These are my strong convictions, and I'm sticking to them. :-)

Posted by: SSMD1 | May 7, 2009 9:56 AM

Desire > BOTT for sure. Although I was seriously influenced seeing Dylan once and only once - on the Desire tour. A great live show of any size leaves a lasting imprint on me. Desire is in my Top 5
pre-90s concerts, with Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Blind Faith and Tina Turner's Private Dancer. Thanks for an insightful analysis.

Posted by: ICanHasBroccoli | May 7, 2009 11:00 AM

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