Bob Dylan – ‘Blonde on Blonde’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

Music fans usually look upon corporations as the business world’s equivalent to a root canal. But Bob Dylan fans worldwide must be flashing bright smiles for the way that Sony Corporation (which now owns Columbia Records) has been doing things right in recent years, mining the archives for memorable live shows and now beginning a massive high-quality remastering and reissuing project, bringing his greatest albums to hybrid CD/SACD. The results are impressive, even on ‘Blonde on Blonde’, which has always been one of the better sounding Dylan albums. Other albums such as ‘Blood On the Tracks’ and ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ (stay tuned for future reviews of both) have prospered more dramatically from remastering and conversion to high resolution digital format, but ‘Blonde on Blonde’ is interesting because it demonstrates the value of the technology when applied to an album that in its plain CD incarnation wasn’t bad to begin with. Yes, it truly wasn’t bad, but it’s a whole lot better now.

First of all, this release shouldn’t be confused with the earlier SACD of the album, which was released by Columbia a few years back. Though it, too, offered an improvement over the standard CD, it did not feature the extensive remastering process on display here and thus it is effectively made obsolete by the current issue. The new release restores the original album artwork (sideways picture and all) and is spread over two discs packaged with booklet (with extra pictures) in a combination cardboard and clear plastic jewel box. Part of the joy of this series is that the artwork on these albums is being carefully matched to the original LP’s, correcting the sloppy approximations which have plagued Columbia’s CD reissues of Dylan albums for almost twenty years now. One very minor new problem, though: This set features some of the most ornery, intractable center spindles for holding the discs in that I’ve ever met. I suppose that’s better than the standard, easily breakable ones that spill out your disc on the floor as soon as you open the cover, but it’s not so good if you can’t actually get the disc out to play! The search for a good holding spindle continues…

To see what difference the basic remastering makes, one can compare the CD layer of this hybrid disc with the original CD issue, or I should say the original corrected issue – The very first version of ‘Blonde on Blonde’ that Columbia put out on CD in the 1980’s was botched by truncated endings to some of the songs. Evidently, the transfer to CD was made by someone who didn’t know the original LP. After howls of complaint from fans, it was replaced with the corrected CD, which has remained standard ever since. In short, what we have here is a fine remastering job, adding a touch of clarity to that “thin mercury sound” which Dylan so loved on this set of songs. Additionally, it seems better balanced throughout the range from treble to bass, without the boosted midrange of the regular CD, an equalization (or more accurately, unequalization!) presumably left over from the original LP master. So even CD-only listeners may want to replace the old CD with this new one, as it brings the music to life a little more than before. But for a change in sound to make you stand up and cheer, we must proceed forward into the land of high-resolution.

It is the leap from regular CD layer to the SACD layer that proves the value of high-resolution technology. Suddenly these familiar old songs burst to life, grab you, and run you through the emotional wringer. The highs shimmer like the sky on a hot summer night, and the drums kick in crisp and fresh. The lows have grown powerful roots, and instruments glow with richness, while at the same time standing out more clearly, allowing background details to emerge. Just listen to the silvery shimmer of the Hammond organ in ‘Visions of Johanna’ or the ringing acoustic guitars in ‘Fourth Time Around’. Even the yearn of Dylan’s weary vocals pull more desperately than ever. All this visceral punch smacks against the downward-pulling phrases and chord progressions that are the musical signature of this album.

There is great fun to be had in making the acquaintance of details that can now be heard in the shadowy backgrounds of some of the songs. For instance, the infamous drunken shouting which peppers ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’ (or, as the uninitiated masses know it, ‘Everybody Must Get Stoned’) is present from almost the very beginning of the track in the far background. Nor had I ever registered the barroom piano deep in the mix in places on ‘Leopard-skin Pill-box Hat’. That last track is especially notable for the gain in clarity that is made by the high-res format without sacrificing any of the song’s aggressive jangle.

The SACD layer also contains a 5.1 surround-sound mix. For the most part, it is a conservative mix, using the rear channels for ambiance only. That draws the listener into the sound a little bit more, but it is not significantly different from the stereo SACD mix in impact or vividness. The exception is ‘Rainy Day Women’, where the engineers seem to have tried to spread the soundstage out to the sides. This spreading causes the trombone to recede back slightly in the mix as it is pulled away from the center over toward the right front channel, where the drums and piano are being pulled more toward the side and right rear. On the left side, the same stretching puts the tambourine somewhere between the left front and left rear. It is also worth noting for those listeners who, like me, enjoy exploring all the layers, that the multichannel layer is at a slightly higher level, making comparison tricky. I also felt that the subwoofer channel was a shade boomy in the stretched surround-sound version. So, in sum, the multi-channel mix adds a little in intimacy where it is kept simple. ‘Rainy Day Women’ seems to have been an experiment in digital sound-manipulation that does not quite work. For those wanting Dylan in an aggressive surround-sound mix that doesn’t resort to digital data processing to stretch the sound-image, ‘Blood on the Tracks’ is the title to grab from this series.

One final comment not related to sonic considerations: Studying this album a few years back, I made an interesting discovery. The last four songs on ‘Blonde on Blonde’ are, according to the published sheet music, in D, F, A, and D. The keys we actually hear played on the album are D, E, A, and D. Interesting – D-E-A-D. Shortly after this album came out, Dylan was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident in upstate New York. Can you imagine what a buzz would have erupted if this “hidden message” had been noticed by the sort of fans who started the infamous “Paul-is-dead” rumor about the Beatles?