In looking back at the discography of a musical icon, chances are it is the ‘breakup album’ that burns brightest. So, when considering the work of Bob Dylan and Tyler the Creator — two very different artists who nonetheless might have more in common than you think — posterity could very well see Blood on the Tracks (1975) and IGOR (2019) as their crowning achievements.
Breakup albums have a rare power; they mark the moment when an image-conscious artist is suddenly compelled to let his guard down. He no longer has to scrabble for new material to appease a sense of progression: material has just flooded in that can’t be ignored.
Dylan, despite his healthy disregard for the zeitgeist expectations of his time, is still an artist of The Empire, as Bret Easton Ellis put it in his essay, “Notes on Charlie Sheen and the End of Empire” (The Daily Beast, 13 Jul 2017). The Empire, in Ellis’s conception, was a time when artists were less knowable, curating their image from a remove; the aesthetic more cryptic, more tasteful. It’s not that work is better now or then, it’s just that it’s fundamentally different. The Empire was a time when people were more high-minded, more restrained, but perhaps less up-front. In the essay, Ellis even called Blood on the Tracks ‘one of Empire’s proudest and most stylish moments.’
And yet, though Dylan is slippery, there’s the sound of unmistakable, raw pain on Blood on the Tracks. This may be what makes the album so powerful: it’s the sound of a man who likes wearing masks suddenly ripping them off despite himself. Or maybe he’s still wearing masks? It could be that it’s the wearing of masks that allows for the candour, as Dylan claimed in Scorcese’s brilliantly mischievous 2019 concert film of the Rolling Thunder Revue, a tour that happened not long after the titular album’s release.
Tyler, who sprung onto the scene as a talented yet troubled 19-year-old in 2009, is an example of Post-Empire. His is an I-don’t-give-a-fuck, disarming transparency. Like Eminem – a seminal Post-empire – before him, Tyler is a practitioner of a rawer kind of autobiography, laying bear his own stupidities and dark fantasies. He’s a bratty enfant terrible, taken more seriously than he ought to be for what is just normal rite-of-passage acting-out — never more absurdly than when he was banned from the UK for saying naughty words. He was the frontman of the rap posse, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, the sort of vaguely threatening group of teens that might menace you at the back of a bus, but individually are softer and more woundable than a haemophiliac stuck in a bramble bush.
Tyler’s silly antics and juvenile provocations couldn’t stop him from winning acclaim; his production chops precocious for his youth. You’d find yourself tapping your foot, just as much as you rolled your eyes.
And then the unexpected, and yet inevitable happened: Tyler matured. Well, kind of.
Meanwhile, back in the ’70s, Dylan was a little muted creatively before Blood on the Tracks was released. His previous ’70s albums were solid, bucolic affairs, well-honed but lacking that fire-in-the-belly of his masterpiece trilogy from the ’60s. Taking inspiration and advice from artist Norman Raeben, who allowed him “to do consciously what he unconsciously felt”, he started writing songs that defied time’s linearity but were clearly coming from a fresh heartbreak. His marriage in serious jeopardy, he could not help but express his pain, a difficult prospect for an artist who likes to remain elusive, whose identity is amorphous. But lay himself bare Dylan did, despite endlessly fiddling with the results.
What followed was one of the most affecting and intimate albums of the 20th century that still manages to be epic in scope. Dylan poured much more of himself into this record than before, despite his contention at the time that he didn’t write confessional songs and that this album was actually based on the short stories of Chekhov. This claim doesn’t really wash, because later in an interview Dylan would bemoan how celebrated the album was, finding it hard to understand how people could “enjoy that kind of pain”.
On Tyler’s previous album Flower Boy (2017), he tentatively yet definitively admitted to having same-sex relationships. This was especially intriguing due to how homophobic his lyrics could be earlier in his career and the machismo that can often be bound up with mainstream rap. But like Dylan going electric, Tyler has been eschewing genre trappings of late. He barely raps on IGOR, often opting for a quavering, almost touchingly amateurish singing. And although there are guest features from other artists, as is customary with rap albums, IGOR remains utterly Tyler’s vision. He’s saying more with less, having also been plunged into a new seriousness due to heartbreak. Just as Dylan couldn’t help but sing from the wound, Tyler is unable to resist singing ‘his truth’, a failed love affair with a man.
At first glance, though, it appears the two men are hiding behind alter egos. For Tyler, the titular Igor persona on album opener IGOR’S THEME is a means to become monstrous and unromantic, to banish his feelings of being compromised by love. Dylan, in the magisterial “Tangled up in Blue”, seems to be telling a fractured narrative about gangsters and topless dancers. Of course, true to his ironic fashion, the events depicted are a smokescreen and actually pertain to the dissolution of Dylan’s marriage – and perhaps other heartbreaks.
It’s not long until an unmistakable tenderness starts mingling with all the shape-shifting. On ” EARFQUAKE, Tyler belies the quirkiness of his music video by begging his lover not to leave and admitting fault, as Dylan does on the devastating “Simple Twist of Fate”, though using the third person, howling in anguish before each refrain betraying his pain. The song eventually gives way to autobiography, with the third person perspective being swapped to a first-person perspective in the last verse, as if Dylan is acknowledging he can’t hide behind characters anymore.
Meanwhile, on” I THINK”, Tyler in true Post-Empire mode is telling his love outright about how much he’s infatuated, wishing his love would “call me by your name”, referencing the 2017 Luca Guadagnino film. Tyler has no time for masks and keeps insisting that his lover (who is likely closeted) take his off. In 2019, there’s no need to hide, while back in the ’70s, Dylan relies on the transformative power of the mask.
In heartbreak, however, it’s the truth that can be too much to bear; hence, the need for masks. Indeed, for Dylan, who likes to come at his artistry in cunning and refracted ways, there’s a need to distance himself from the pain in his own material. This could be one of the drawbacks of Empire – it’s unseemly to show too much of yourself. Dylan dropped “Call Letter Blues” for the less personal “Meet Me in the Morning”, jettisoning the references to his kids “Crying for mama”. Author Clinton Heylin called this a ‘copout’ but this Empire-work wouldn’t be as fascinating if it didn’t bear Dylan’s trademark inscrutability.
One of the most painful aspects of a breakup is having to face the inevitability of your love moving on to someone else. It’s no wonder Dylan practically howls yet again when he sings:
Oh, I know where I can find you, oh, oh
In somebody’s room
Before accepting this as an unavoidable fate:
It’s a price I have to pay
You’re a big girl all the way
Tyler, however, still in his 20, is not taking his lover’s crap lying down:
“She’s not developed like we are,” Tyler protests on “NEW MAGIC WAND”, decrying his lover’s new female love interest; he’s having none of that turn-the-other-cheek shit, in true post-empire fashion. He even threatens to kill his ex’s new love interest with his ‘magic wand’ like Eminem before him, the man who made a whole track about imagined matricide.
Since there’s often anger regarding the circumstances leading to a breakup, “NEW MAGIC WAND”, and Dylan’s “Idiot Wind”can be seen as acerbic tracks, settling the score. Tenderness is put to bed, vitriol overwhelming instead, with Dylan, though not as murderous as Tyler, still imaging his love “in the ditch/ flies buzzing around (her) eyes, blood on (her) saddle”.
It’s not long before all this violence is exposed for the macho posturing it is, and both artists are aware of this. At the end of “Idiot Wind”, Dylan changes the ‘you’ to ‘we’, conceding his part in all the idiocy – “we are idiots, babe. It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves”. You get the impression this realization is hard-won, and that Dylan isn’t someone who likes admitting fault. This crumbling of the pose being played out is what makes these albums so affecting – we feel emotions ratchet up and burn out in real-time.
Tyler’s violence mutates into blind devotion on “PUPPET”, where he’s a supplicant worshiping at his lover’s shrine, a puppet on a string. But while Tyler is laying his dependency bare, Dylan is busy with a new love (allegedly Ellen Bernstein, an A&R executive at Columbia) on “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”. This affair was most likely conducted behind his wife’s back, giving credence to his reluctant admission of idiocy on “Idiot Wind”. Tyler, for all his post-empire irreverence, seems the more committed lover.
But all this heartbreak needs an interval, so the two artists, as if fed up with all this lovesickness, slip back into their respective personas, coming up for air. As if to reinstate their vitality, things take a turn for the braggadocios. On banger “What’s Good”, assuming the Igor persona, Tyler calls out his rivals, a typical rap trope, and on “Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” Dylan conceives of himself as an elusive, trickster figure, who has one up on everyone. Both songs have nothing much to do with the heartbreak that is the engine behind the albums. Such grandstanding is all the more striking amid all this vulnerability for its avoidance of the main theme.
Of course, it’s not long before love’s gravity pulls them down again. Somewhat fumblingly, on “GONE, GONE/THANK YOU” Tyler recounts his romance with a conciliatory fondness, agreeing that it is better to “have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”, but perhaps unwilling to be too emotionally exposed, he alters the pitch of his singing to a chipmunk-like frequency, as if still wanting to undercut how lame being in love makes you. Similarly, distancing techniques are employed by Dylan on “If You See Her, Say Hello”. Likely addressed to his wife’s new lover he tells him, “If you get close to her, kiss her once for me”, which is an alteration on a previous version where he sang “If you’re making love to her”… Retracting this is telling; it’s as though admitting what his wife’s moving on would entail, and it’s too stark for Dylan. But the upshot here is both artists are finding some kind of acceptance, despite still feeling raw.
The pain from a breakup comes in cycles – you feel you’ve moved on and then suddenly a stray thing – a photograph, a memory, an item of clothing – pulls you back into that vortex. As if sensing this, Tyler keeps singing “I don’t love you anymore”, on the track so titled, until his insistence turns into a petulant shout of annoyance leaving us to wonder how much he really believes this. As Dylan reaches the end of his record, he reflects wistfully on the relationship, unable to contain his longing, never more beautifully than when he sings “If I could only turn back the clock/ To when God and her were born”. For all the sorrow, there ‘s the feeling that both these artists would never take their experience of love back – it was their ‘salvation’, even if it was “a lethal dose”. If nothing else, two amazing albums wouldn’t have existed.
Like Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello”, Tyler’s “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?”, the album closer, is also enquiring about a past love’s current status from a place of remoteness. He’s showing that he still cares about his lover and wishes him well, while acknowledging that any future communication is uncertain. That’s quite mature coming from the guy who once rapped about having a threesome with a triceratops.
On the two closing tracks from Blood on the Tracks, Dylan goes from reflecting on how the woman who once gave him “Shelter From the Storm” is now the source of the deluge on “Buckets of Rain”. “Life is sad/ Life is a bust/ All you can do is do what you must”. Though Dylan is surrounded by “buckets of tears”, it might be as Tyler Sings on “RUNNING OUT OF TIME”: “(You) find peace in drowning”.
In the case of IGOR and Blood on the Tracks, two very different larger-than-life figures actively choose to put their egos to the side for a moment so that they could come to grips with the inner immensities that heartbreak leaves in its wake. To be enriched, you have to risk looking small. Interestingly, around the release of “Flower Boy”, Tyler the attention seeker severely lessened his interviews, opting to just do his own interviews with friend Jerrod Carmichael, as interviews are ‘ugly’. For such an exhibitionist, Tyler can be very shy.
It would appear that Tyler is stepping into a new coyness, while, in 1975, the enigmatic Dylan was wading into direct expression. Both artists have grappled with how to deal with the media, trying to reconcile not being overexposed with the artist’ need to bare their soul. Could it be that both sides of the Empire have something to teach each other? There is value in being both obscure and up-front.
While no one is going to mistake IGOR for a masterpiece, it shines for its transparency, its plain statement of the facts; it might not have the mysterious pull that Dylan’s record has, but by ditching obfuscations, it may bring more honest accountability to bear. What IGOR comparatively lacks in subtlety — it certainly doesn’t lack for craft — it gains in its directness.
Ultimately, what these two albums — nearly half a century apart — show us, is that although heartbreak always feels uniquely painful, it transcends time, space, ideology, and sexual orientation. It is, in a word, universal.