Tangled Up in Blue: Deciphering a Bob Dylan Masterpiece

Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” strikes a middle point between his more surreal lyrics of the ‘60s and his more straightforward love songs, and as Polyphonic’s recent video taking a deep dive into this “musical masterpiece” shows, that combination is why so many count it as one of his best songs.

It is the opening track of Blood on the Tracks, the 1975 album that critics hailed as a return to form after four middling-at-best albums. (One of them, Self-Portrait, earned Dylan one of critic Greil Marcus’ best known opening lines: “What is this shit?”–in the pages of Rolling Stone no less.)

Blood on the Tracks is one of the best grumpy, middle-age albums, post-relationship, post-fame, all reckoning and accountability, a survey of the damage done to oneself and others, and “Tangled” is the entry point. Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lowndes Dylan was floundering after eight years–affairs, drink, and drugs had estranged the couple. Dylan would later say that “Tangled” “took me ten years to live and two years to write.”

It would also take him two studios, two cities, and two band line-ups to get working. A version recorded in New York City is slower, lower (in key), and more like one of his guitar-only folk tunes. In December of 1974, Dylan returned home to Minnesota and played the songs to his brother, who wasn’t impressed and suggested he rerecord. The version we know is faster, brighter, janglier, and as Polyphonic explains, sung at a key nearly too high for Dylan. But it’s that wild, near exasperation of reaching those notes that gives the song its lifeblood.

And he also reworked the lyrics, removing whole verses and changing others, until the finished version is, indeed, tangled. It jumps back and forth from present to past to wishful future, verse to verse, and even line to line.

The pronouns change too–the “she” is sometimes the lost love, sometimes a woman who reminds the singer of the former. The further he goes to get away from his first love, the more he meets visions of her elsewhere.

Then there’s the details of the travels and the jobs the narrator takes on, leaving fans to parse which are true and which are not (Sara Lowndes, for example, was working at a Playboy club–the “topless place”–when he met her). And even if we could know who the man is in verse six who “started into dealing with slaves”…would it make any difference?

In the end the song feels universal because it is both so specific and so intentionally confounding. “Tangled Up in Blue” affects so many of its listeners, yours truly included, because it recreates the way memories nestle in our minds, not as a linear sequence but as a kaleidoscope of images and feelings.

Related Content:

How Talking Heads and Brian Eno Wrote “Once in a Lifetime”: Cutting Edge, Strange & Utterly Brilliant

Classic Songs by Bob Dylan Re-Imagined as Pulp Fiction Book Covers: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” & More

Watch Joan Baez Endearingly Imitate Bob Dylan (1972)

Hear Bob Dylan’s Newly-Released Nobel Lecture: A Meditation on Music, Literature & Lyrics

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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