In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Songs with prominent harmonica usage.
Considering that he’s written and recorded hundreds of songs over a 50-plus year career—many of them sitting somewhere within the wide umbrella of folk—picking just one song out of Bob Dylan’s catalog to stand in for his decades-long love affair with the harmonica is a tricky prospect. Still, when in doubt, go with the best, and when it comes to Dylan, that means “Tangled Up In Blue,” his masterpiece off of 1975’s Blood On The Tracks.
Attempting to unravel the song’s densely woven story is little more than an exercise in futility; the lyrics change tenses on the fly, characters are referred to only by pronouns, and Dylan has claimed that his approach to narrative was influenced by the works of Cubists like Pablo Picasso. (It doesn’t help that he’s recorded multiple versions of the song over the years, each with their own lyrical tweaks.) What matters in “Tangled Up In Blue” is the rawness of the emotion, as Dylan (or the narrator, or whoever) moves in and out of the orbit of the woman (or women) who stand as the overriding obsession of his life. And while his howling vocals evoke powerful feelings of longing and desperation—has there ever been an image of anticipation and anxiety more powerful than Dylan’s muse casually, intimately bending down to tie the laces of his shoes?—it’s the harmonica solo that caps the song and drives it all home.
The harmonica is actually a bit more restrained than Dylan’s famously warbling singing voice, executing the solo with a precision that the vocals don’t pretend to. For all that, though, it still carries the song’s emotion into the climax, picking up the tempo and taking the place of words for the song’s final verse. Stripped of his literary flourishes, Dylan’s left with nothing but the song’s stridently emotional melody, laying out an impressionist thesis that his “multi-dimensional” approach to storytelling has spent the last five minutes bouncing all around. “Tangled Up In Blue” would still be a great song without that culminating solo, but it’s the purity of the harmonica’s expression that vaults it to the very top of Dylan’s storytelling and songwriting career.