None of Bob Dylan’s albums had a more confounding genesis than “Blood on the Tracks.” Dylan entered New York’s A&R Studios on Sept. 16, 1974, in possession of the strongest batch of songs he’d written since the mid-’60s. They were stories of dislocation and parting, of brokenness and the search for a lost connection. They managed the trick of being both intimately detailed and universal. Were they rooted in Dylan’s own deteriorating marriage? “I don’t write confessional songs,” Dylan sneered when asked about the album in an interview a decade later. Yet the most emotionally charged songs seem too raw to have been drawn from anything except real life. A more reliable witness, perhaps, is Dylan’s son Jakob, who as a 5-year-old was present during some of the recording sessions. “When I’m listening to ‘Blood on the Tracks,’” he once said, “that’s about my parents.”
But how did Dylan want these precious songs to sound? A talented country band, known as Deliverance, was hastily called in. But Dylan was so impatient to get the songs on tape that he began recording them almost before the band could learn them. The more uncertain the musicians became, the faster Dylan would move to the next song, it seemed. Only one track featuring the entire band made it to the final album; most of the others were cut with just Dylan, bassist Tony Brown, and an occasional guest. After four days he thought his 10-song album was complete; a test pressing was made for his review. Then, in one of the most enigmatic moves of his enigmatic career, Dylan decided to re-record half the album in December in Minneapolis, using a bunch of local pickup musicians who were never credited on the record jacket.
This is no way to record a masterpiece, and the fact that “Blood on the Tracks” (1975) remains the most emotionally penetrating album Dylan has ever created is a testimony to how masterful Dylan’s songcraft was at the time. That, and the chaotic circumstances of its creation, make it a natural for inclusion in Sony’s Bootleg Series, which has taken an exhaustive look at single albums or phases of Dylan’s career. The somewhat clumsily titled “More Blood, More Tracks,” released Friday, is the 14th entry in the series.
The six-CD set collects the entire output of that four-day stretch of recording in New York. Inevitably, there’s some repetition — no fewer than 12 different attempts at “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” for example. What’s exhilarating is the chance to eavesdrop on the evolution of the songs as Dylan grasps, bit by bit, for the emotional center of each one — changing lyrics in “Tangled Up in Blue,” altering his vocal delivery to make “Idiot Wind” more melancholy or sardonic. You sense his frustration as the band makes “Simple Twist of Fate” into slick AM radio fodder and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome” a jaunty two-step.
You can also reconstruct, more or less, the test pressing that represented Dylan’s first, more radical vision for the album: a virtually all-acoustic cycle of quietly desperate love songs and lonely travelogues, new art in a format that harkens back to Dylan’s earliest recordings. It makes for harrowing, if somewhat monochromatic, listening, which may be why he decided to remake five of the songs, changing lyrics and giving them more extroverted arrangements.
Was Dylan convinced by his brother, as legend has it, that the album would flop, and that he should make something more conventional? Did he think that he had revealed too much of himself? Neither scenario sounds like Dylan, and we will likely never know for sure. Frustratingly, no outtakes from the Minneapolis sessions survive, although the five album tracks are present here in remixes that have new clarity and punch.
What the set does best is to capture, in all its messy inclusivity, the sheer force of Dylan’s inspiration, even as he struggles to figure out how to convert it into recorded sound. After years of seclusion and mediocre albums, he was about to reinvent songwriting again, and he was betting, as he had before, that if he simply got into the studio and started to try things, it would come out right. On some solo tracks, apparently cut before the band arrived, you can clearly hear the buttons on Dylan’s jacket hitting his guitar. No one stopped him; everyone thought it best to just let the tape roll.
Bob Dylan plays Springfield Symphony Hall on Nov. 18.