Musicheads Essential Album: Bob Dylan, 'Blonde on Blonde'

Bob Dylan 'Blonde on Blonde' album cover.
Detail of album art: Bob Dylan, 'Blonde on Blonde.' (Columbia)

Artists aren't typically their own best critics, but Bob Dylan offered the definitive description of his 1966 classic Blonde on Blonde when he said it was "the closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind...that thin, that wild mercury sound. It's metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up." One of rock's most distinctive and inexhaustible recordings, Blonde On Blonde is a Musicheads Essential Album.

It's hard to wrap your mind around the creative run Dylan was on when he stepped into Columbia's Nashville studio in February 1966. Coming off of the game-changing one-two punch of Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan had a sense of where he wanted to go next but hadn't been satisfied with New York sessions featuring the Hawks — the group later to be known as the Band. Producer Bob Johnston suggested a change of scenery, as Dylan continued to hone a series of songs that would ultimately fill a double album.

Once Dylan and his band of seasoned session players hit their stride, they landed on a sound that was utterly distinctive: more laid-back and organic than the hard-charging rock of his preceding albums, but with a newfound emotional urgency and piercing intimacy. "Absolutely Sweet Marie" was the first song where they nailed it.

The finished album would include some of Dylan's best-known songs, including "Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35," "I Want You," and "Just Like a Woman." He married the mystic and the mundane in pained love songs like "Visions of Johanna" and "4th Time Around," but tongue-in-cheek numbers like "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" ensured the mood never felt too precious. It all culminated with "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." A song about his future wife Sara Lownds that became perhaps the most famous of Dylan's many epic songs, the track occupied the entire side of Blonde on Blonde’s second vinyl LP.

An album that rewards seemingly infinite listenings, Blonde on Blonde is often called the best of Dylan's career...and thus, one of the greatest albums ever. Two months after its release, a serious motorcycle accident forced Dylan to take a break that would lead his career in a new direction, making Blonde on Blonde the conclusion and culmination of one of the most remarkable and consequential creative stretches in music history.

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