The Bloody Beast in Its Tracks: Divorce Through The Eyes of Bob Dylan and Josh Ritter

1 Jun
Bob Dylan "Blood on the Tracks" vs. Josh Ritter's "The Beast in Its Tracks"

Two Men. Two Divorces. Two Albums.

Nearly 40 years separates the release of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Josh Ritter’s The Beast in Its Tracks, but the themes are still familiar: divorce, heartbreak, introspection, and cautious optimism about new love.

I was raised on a timeless mishmash of Dylan’s greatest hits, so it wasn’t until recently digesting his discography that I heard Blood on the Tracks in its entirety. It’s a phenomenal album, but I couldn’t stop comparing it to Ritter’s The Beast in Its Tracks, which came out only a few months ago. The two albums portray men at roughly the same age (Dylan at 35; Ritter at 36) reacting to their crumbling marriages and starting their lives anew.

A note before I begin my analysis: I realize it’s a fool’s errand to try and read a truthful biography out of the tea leaves left by any artist—especially Dylan—but the lyrics and sentiments present in both albums undeniably comment on a common human condition (heartbreak). Still, all of my interpretations should be taken on a metaphorical level and with copious metaphorical salt.

It’s true that Dylan did not officially divorce Sara Lownds until two years after Blood on the Tracks came out; nonetheless, the album is heralded by many critics as one of the all-time great “divorce albums.” Interestingly, Ritter’s album came out about two years after his divorce from singer/songwriter Dawn Landes. Perhaps this is why Ritter’s album, for all its clear and present heartache, is delivered with a kind of maturity and restraint not seen in Dylan’s work, which is far more immediate in its melancholy.

Dylan, for all his characteristic callousness, surprisingly opens the album hinting that he accepts some of the blame for his failed relationship. In “Tangled Up in Blue,” he opines, “She was married when we first met / Soon to be divorced / I helped her out of a jam, I guess, / But I used a little too much force,” acknowledging that the relationship may not have been built on the healthiest of foundations. Ritter, too, states rather unequivocally in “New Lover,” “Perhaps the fault was mine / Perhaps I just ignored / who you’re always gonna be, / Instead of who I took you for.” Both men were forced to face their disillusionment head-on and acknowledge their role in keeping up the façade.

However, Dylan doesn’t maintain the humble act for long, and soon the blame shifts from “A Simple Twist of Fate” to his “idiot” ex within the space of three tracks. “Idiot Wind” is arguably the most venomous song in the Dylan canon, with that sneer of “you’re an eeeee-dee-yut, babe” and the fantasy death of the song’s subject—“ One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes”—ouch.

Bob Dylan sings "Idiot Wind" video still

Bob Dylan sings “Idiot Wind” with a characteristic sneer
Image from (click to view video)

This is not to say that Ritter doesn’t harbor his own malice. He’s just much more subtle about it. NPR’s Stephen Thompson singled out the memorable twist that ends “New Lover” to be Ritter’s most “acerbic” slide into spitefulness:

“I hope you’ve got a lover now,
hope you’ve got somebody who
Can give you what you need like I couldn’t seem to do.
But if you’re sad and you are lonesome
and you’ve got nobody true,
I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy too”

However, I’d argue that “Nightmares,” one of the most up-tempo, Paul Simon-esque tracks on the album, is far darker in its sentiments about his breakup. In the throes of insomnia, Ritter has an epiphany: “I knew that you had been untrue / I didn’t know how but I knew / That who you spoke to in your dreams / Was never how you spoke to me.” From here he descends into a literal hell of medicated sleep, where embodied nightmares “drink their fill on lakes of blood / Canter ‘cross the skull-paved mud.” The narrative subtly introduces a new character into the end of the song, a “he” who gets dragged down to that nightmarish hell, where the narrator announces he will “prop his eyes and down them feed / The same hell you both fed to me.” Upon first listen, I took the “he” to be Josh himself, but it makes complete sense as a cuckold’s revenge fantasy, one as every bit as violent and vicious as “Idiot Wind.” However, Ritter’s revenge is confined to an abstract realm, projecting a much tamer image than that of a woman left to bleed in a ditch.

For divorce albums, both Blood on the Tracks and The Beast in Its Tracks seem to have their fair share of love songs. Although some of the more romantic songs on Dylan’s album can be fairly labeled “Take me back, Sara” songs (possibly “Meet Me in the Morning”; definitely “If You See Her Say Hello”), some of them teem with the lusty flirtation of new love (definitely “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”; possibly “Buckets of Rain”—although perhaps I find that song so sexy due to this cover version by Beth Orton and M. Ward).

A full 7 out of 14 songs on Ritter’s album seem to pertain to new love, including the sensual “Bonfire,” which literally burns with passion that’s far from subtle; take Dylan’s “I like your smile and your fingertips / I like the way that you move your lips” verses Ritter’s “I need a little motion, need a little relief / I get a little lonely at the end of the week / And I want it so bad and if you want it so bad, too / I’ll be over here with my bonfire for you.” But while Ritter seems to have found peace and satisfaction in his new love, he also seems to have found, well, if not forgiveness then at least reprieve from the past. “Joy to You Baby” swells to this memorable climax:

“There’s pain in whatever
We stumble upon
If I never had met you
You couldn’t have gone
But then I couldn’t have met you
We couldn’t have been
I guess it all adds up
To joy to the end”

Ritter’s maturity here is frankly inspiring, even two years from his heartbreak. It’s hard to imagine Dylan ever reaching this kind of acceptance, no matter how many years have passed.

Even though both albums present different portraits of divorce, I think that each stands as a highlight in the careers of these folk singers. Ritter especially only seems to get better with age—a sentiment not necessarily shared by all Dylan critics. But that’s not going to stop me from blasting “Idiot Wind” and indulging in not-so-nice thoughts about my exes.


One Response to “The Bloody Beast in Its Tracks: Divorce Through The Eyes of Bob Dylan and Josh Ritter”

  1. B.E. June 9, 2013 at 9:28 am #

    Very interesting comparison between the two men. Makes me want to back and listen more closely to their lyrics. Dylan doesn’t get easier to “read” over the years for me. Josh Ritter I am learning about and appears far more accessible.

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