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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