Tangled Up in Blue: Analysis
To understand and appreciate Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” we first need to talk about the album of which it headlines, Blood on the Tracks. This 1975 record arrived amidst the anguish of Dylan’s divorce with his wife of twelve years, Sara.
The album tracks the death of a relationship, with Dylan exploring both the evitable and inevitable factors that lead to the collapse, along with the raw emotions that come with such an event. He dips his pen into bleeding heart and puts it all on the page – all the tears, the anger, the longing, the regret. The result is a masterpiece that’s both intensely personal and vastly universal – a difficult balance that’s manifested beautifully in the opening track, “Tangled Up in Blue.”
For this examination, however, I’ll be analyzing a different cut of the song, off the album, “Real Live” – a version that Dylan himself declared better than the studio cut:
“On Real Live [“Tangled Up in Blue”] is more like it should have been. I was never really happy with it. I guess I was just trying to make it like a painting where you can see the different parts but then you also see the whole of it. With that particular song, that’s what I was trying to do . . . with the concept of time, and the way the characters change from the first person to the third person, and you’re never quite sure if the third person is talking or the first person is talking. But as you look at the whole thing it really doesn’t matter. On Real Live, the imagery is better and more the way I would have liked it than on the original recording.”
– Bob Dylan to Rolling Stone, 1985
Dylan switches this version up completely, which should be no surprise to any longtime fan. He arms himself with his guitar, harmonica, new lyrics, and a new melody for this version, supplying the timeless story with a new energy.
The recording from “Real Live” is available on Spotify here – it is available for free, although if you have not used Spotify you will have to register first – perhaps on a different page. (Spotify is not available in all parts of the world. There are other live versions on line but as far as we can find not the Real Live version. If our link doesn’t work for you, trying typing into Google “Spotify Tangled up in Blue Real Live”)
Dylan begins the song using the third person, describing the soon-to-be narrator as well as the relationship between and man and woman.
“Early one morning, the sun was shining.
wondering if she changed at all,
if her hair was still red.
Her folks they said that their lives together
They never did like mama’s homemade dress,
Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough.”
Immediately, Dylan hints at a the splitting that he’ll explore later on – “He was laying in bed, wondering if she changed at all, if her hair was still red.” Here we’re with our main character as he lies on his bed, thinking about the woman who we can infer that he lost, perhaps reflecting on his mistakes. We see the character alone again at the end of the verse.
“And he was standing on the side of the road
rain falling on his shoes,
heading out for the lone east coast,
Dylan juxtaposes these images after the breakup with the omniscient narrator explaining to us some larger problems before the breakup, namely family and money. We have been given the bookends of the story, the beginning and the ending. What we don’t know is the journey, and that’s what “Tangled Up in Blue” is all about.
In the next verse, we fill out some more of out characters’ backgrounds.
“She was married when they first met,
to a man four times her age.
He left her penniless, in the state of regret,
it was time to break out of the cage.
They drove that car as far as they could,
splitting up on a dark, sad night,
both agreeing that it was best.”
We get some more history of the relationship, but Dylan makes us work for information by primarily using pronouns to refer to all his characters. This supports Dylan’s comments to Rolling Stone where he says this is intentional – he wants it to all blend together, to emerge as a foggy voyage through a couple’s memories of their broken relationship.
In this excerpt, Dylan introduces the character of a “man four times her age.” He uses pronouns vaguely throughout the rest of the song, and he does that here to subtlety shift between characters. Dylan stops referring to this new character after he leaves our female lead “penniless, in the state of regret.” The following “they” then begins indicating the original pairing of our main characters, the woman with the red hair and man lying on his bed.
The next four lines could be taken literally or more symbolically.
“They drove that car as far as they could,
splitting up on a dark, sad night
Both agreeing that it was best”
We can take these lines on the surface, as metaphor, or both. On the surface, we have the visual of the couple racing off through the night, never reaching their destination and rather physically parting ways “out west.” On a metaphorical level, there may be no car at all, and it’s rather a symbol for their relationship – they took it as far as they could, rode it until the last drops of gas were guzzled up, but it ultimately broke down.
The next six lines are some of the most powerful in the whole song.
“And she turned around to look at him
She said I wish I could tell you all the things
that I never learned how to say.
He said that’s alright babe, I love you too,
but we were tangled up in blue.”
Those last four lines. So simple. So powerful. It encapsulates a cause of collapse in many relationships, romantic or otherwise, which is communication. Here it’s the woman in the relationship who seems to have had been struggling with this, saying, “I wish I could tell you all the things that I never learned how to say.” She never learned how to truly articulate how she feels or what she needs, but her desire for a deep connection is there. She seems to genuinely want to be with the man but is just now realizing that fate may have different plans. It’s a powerful and heartbreaking use of sparse dialogue from Dylan.
The man responds, “that’s alright babe, I love you too. But we were tangled up in blue,” which leads us to believe he doesn’t put the blame on her, but rather on being “tangled up in blue.” This is the first time our first person narrator says the phrase himself, noting his awareness of the greater overall meaning of his own story – this idea of getting “tangled up in blue.” To explain what I mean by that, we must decipher the phrase itself.
I take the title of the song to refer to life and everything that comes with it – all its twists and turns, highs and lows, heartbreaks and happiness. Our characters get “tangled up in blue,” caught up in these ups and downs of life. They want love, but life gets in the way. The fault belongs to neither of them – there’s no one to blame save the unclear stormy forecast of one’s future, of life. And that makes the story all the more heartbreaking, yet all the more relatable.
In the next verse, we learn more about the man’s history.
“He had a steady job and a pretty face,
and everything seemed to fit.
One day he could just feel the waste,
he put it all down and split.
And he headed down to New Orleans,
where they treated him like a boy.
He nearly went mad in Baton Rouge,
he nearly drowned in Delacroix.”
Dylan is giving us the man’s “blue” here – that is, his story, his entanglement, a brief glimpse into his journey without the woman – before bringing us back to relationship.
“And all the time he was alone,
the past was close behind.
he had one too many lovers then,
and none of them were too refined,
but you were tangled up in blue.”
These lines tell us that the lyrics preceding them referred to a period after the breakup. “And all the time he was alone.” Throughout all this man’s searching, from New Orleans to Delacroix, he never felt complete. “The past was close behind.” His past was always there, following him – the mistakes he made, decisions he regrets, memories of the lost woman. No one ever meant as much to him as this woman did, but she was “tangled up in blue,” busy with her life, caught up in the day-to-day grind.
“She was working in the blinding light,
and I stopped in for a drink.
I just kept looking at her face so white,
I didn’t know what to think.”
Dylan jarringly shifts to the first person of the man in this verse, intentionally trying to disorient us.
“Later on as the crowd thinned out,
I was getting ready to leave.
She was standing there, beside my chair,
saying “What’s that you got up your sleeve?”
I said “nothing baby, and that’s for sure”
She leaned down into my face.
I could feel the heat and the pulse of her
as she bent down to tie the lases
It’s unclear whether or not this scene is the two meeting for the first time or perhaps the man visiting where the woman works after the breakup, nervously waiting to speak to her. Either way, the sexual tension between the two is apparent – “she leaned down into my face. I could feel the heat and the pulse of her as she bent down to tie the lases of my shoe.” Great surreal description of a feeling we all know, but perhaps do not have the words for ourselves.
“I lived with him on Montague street
in a basement down the stairs.
There was snow all winter and no heat,
revolution was in the air.”
Now Dylan has shifted to the woman’s point of view, again speaking in the first person. She seems to be describing her time with the man – memories of the bitter cold and the impending social-political revolution of the 1960s.
“Then one day all his slaves ran free,
something inside of him died.
The only thing I could do was be me,
and get on that train and ride.”
The woman then pulls us out of the cold and into the heat of the relationship, possibly explaining why she left him. “Then one day all his slaves ran free, something inside of him died.” I take this line to be referring to the man losing something, some part of him, and the woman left him because of it. What exactly it is, Dylan does not say.
“And it all came crashing down,
I didn’t know whether the world was flat or round,
I had the worst taste in my mouth,
We dive into the mind of the woman shortly after the breakup, all her confusion and disgust after losing him. Dylan then switches back to the man’s first person in the final verse.
“Now I’m going back again,
maybe tomorrow, maybe next year.
I’ve got to find someone among the women and men
whose destiny is unclear.”
This is the man post-breakup again, having accepted the situation once and for all. He states he will be “going back again,” presumably back home, where he and the woman met, but is unclear about when – it is less a plan than a far distant dream.
In the meantime, he hopes to find someone “whose destiny is unclear,” or in other words, who is not “tangled up in blue.” Someone who’s future is wide open and that of which he can freely and easily become a part. He is sick of this net, this entanglement in which he keeps getting trapped. Some seem to have it figured out, but even they are mistaken, Dylan argues.
“Some are ministers of illusion,
some are masters of the trade.
All under strong delusion,
all of their beds are unmade.”
Some people come into your lives just to trick you, to entangle your life further. Some appear to be in total control and have it all figured out. But they have built up a false sense of security and jurisdiction over their lives, believing they have untangled their net. They too are mistaken.
That leads us to the final lines of the song. There are so many ways for this story to end. Will the two get back together, hop in the car and head off West like before? At the very least will we get to hear the two speak to one another once more?
“Me I’m heading toward the sun,
trying to stay out of the joint.
We always did love the very same one.
We just saw her from a different point
To some this could be a depressing anti-love song, but I prefer to see it as a heart-breakingly honest song – one that encapsulates the difficulties of life and relationships better than any I’ve heard. This ending, while not directly optimistic in the vein of a typical Hollywood romance, still holds a hope within it, a bittersweet smile. The man states that he’s moving forward with his life, headfirst into the bedlam.
However, Dylan has more to say. The narrator, who we presume is still the man, begins to use pronouns that don’t quite make sense. “We always did love the very same one. We just saw her from a different point of view.” We immediately assume the “we” refers to the man and the woman, but then he says, “we just saw her from a different point of view.” Are we to think there is a whole other character in the story that he didn’t reference until now? Dylan completely flips the story on its head, making us question everything we thought we knew about this story. Did we miss something? I don’t think so.
The “we” refers to the man, but two versions of him: his past self and his present self. When Dylan uses “I” to refer to the man, it’s the older, wiser version of him — the one post-breakup. When Dylan uses “he” to refer to the man, it’s a younger, more naïve version of him — one who is either living in or just before the relationship.
Dylan is putting the song on a timeline here. “Tangled Up in Blue” deals heavily with the idea of time and how it interacts with a relationship. This last verse reveals how the view of one’s partner changes as time passes. Early on, the attraction is irresistible, but with that often comes a simplicity, ignorance to the partner’s flaws. As time marches on, these flaws grow more present and change the dynamic of the relationship.
This realization, Dylan argues, was inevitable for the man and woman. “We always did love the very same one. We just saw her from a different point of view.” The man always loved her, at the beginning as well as the end, but it was different. He does not elaborate, because why should he? There was nothing else he could do — she was tangled up in blue.
Up until these last lines, a somewhat direct narrative can be stretched throughout the song, but even that is muddled and complicated. We jump back and forward in time with possible flashbacks and hazy memories interwoven throughout. The song itself is tangled. On songwriting level, this decision to arrange the lyrics so that they echo the narrative this way was pure genius, but that is not to overlook the actual content within the words either.
The story of this relationship is universal – this feeling of life overwhelming us, getting in the way of our best laid plans, rendering us helpless. But there is a beauty in knowing that this is everyone’s experience – we’re all tangled up in our own blue, just trying to figure it all out.
“Tangled Up in Blue” kicks off one of the most essential records in music history, Blood on the Tracks, which is an anthem for the heartbroken. It is one of Dylan’s finest accomplishments and shows audiences his humanity — no longer is he the prophet atop a pedestal. Rather he is simply a human being, a man who is flawed and confused. He strips himself bare with his emotions raw and honest and holds himself accountable for the train that hit him. However, it isn’t the crash that Dylan is interested in — it’s the aftermath. It’s the blood on the tracks.
What else is on the site
1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here. A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.