Bob Dylan toasted his 80th birthday this week, a remarkable milestone for one of the greatest songwriters of his – or any other – generation.
A man out of time who has constantly sought to evade those on his tail through multiple periods of aesthetic evolution, Dylan is an artist who has worn multiple masks throughout his time in the public eye.
From his initial press bio – packed with mischievous half-truths and inventions – through to his role as a protest singer; from turning electric to escaping the public eye via a 'motorcycle crash'; from his 'Blood On The Tracks' comeback to his embrace of Christianity, on through to his current chapter – arguably kicked off by 1997's potent 'Time Out Of Mind' – it's unclear which Dylan is the 'correct' one. Or perhaps none of them are.
What is clear, though, is that Bob Dylan's work will outlast any of us – a unique catalogue, one that speaks eloquently of the times it was created in while constantly reaching for the universal. And there's nothing more universal than love. From his debut album to his latest opus, Bob Dylan has continually returned to matter of the heart – from infatuation to loss, few have so potently channelled the spectrum of passion.
Here, Clash writers offer personal picks from Bob Dylan's archive of love songs.
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'Just Like A Woman'
Never been a massive Dylan guy myself. But since almost everyone around me worships the man I periodically revisit to see what the fuss is about. Rarely works, tbh, except in the case of this song, which absolutely haunts my bloody soul. What’s it about? Dylanologists argue the toss over whether he’s caterwauling for Andy Warhol’s muse Edie Sedgwick, or pining over folk singer Joan Baez.
Doesn’t matter. It’s about womanhood in general, innit – young womanhood, perceived through the lens of a bruised male ego. That killer line in the middle – fog, amphetamines, pearls – is as vivid a lyrical likeness as anything in Byron or Shakespeare, an acid broadside flung at his brittle inamorata.
Latter-day Dylan stans reckon he pulled that line out of his arse, lyrically speaking, on the day of the recording session. But I don’t buy it. He’s hurt, and spiteful. Just like a little girl. (Andy Hill)
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While famously coy about who his songs were about, there’s something beautiful about the blatancy of Sara, dedicated to his first wife Sara Lownds.
Merging domestic bliss with mystical imagery, this love song turns memories into myths, recounting their love story as a kind of hypnotic legend. Celebrating the magic in the mundane as he remembers days on the beach with his children and all the places he wrote her love songs, Sara screams his love from the rooftops but focussed on cosy marital life rather than fleeting passion. (Lucy Harbron)
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'Girl From The North Country'
In the same vein as 'If You See Her, Say Hello', 'Girl From The North Country' is a classic tale of missing the one that got away. Firmly within his country and folk routes, the track feels like a moment of heartbreak over leaving his past behind, both the girl he loved and his old home. It’s sparse and simple, almost childlike in its vulnerability as Dylan thinly veils his heartbreak behind well wishes.
An ode to the way ghosts of loves lost will follow you no matter where you run, 'Girl From North Country' is full of tenderness and the subtle poetry of Dylan’s early works. (Lucy Harbron)
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'Romance In Durango'
At its heart ‘Romance in Durango’ is a love story about two lovers on the run from a gang. The lyric of the song is: “Sold my guitar to the baker's son / For a few crumbs and a place to hide / But I can get another one / And I'll play for Magdalena as we ride…” It paints a tender picture of lovers doing what they can to survive. It feels like an extension of his time filming, and scoring, Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which was filmed in Durango, Mexico.
But this isn’t the only story in the song. The hero of the tale is also lamenting the murder of a friend called Ramon. Was Ramon a lover? Is this a tale of unrequited love, or did the hero pull the trigger? Classically Dylan never confirms this, instead switching attention back to the lovers on the run. Musically it’s filled with soaring violins, mariachi horns and intricate guitar work that matches the story perfectly. (Nick Roseblade)
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‘Isis’ opens with the lines: “I married Isis on the fifth day of May / But I could not hold on to her very long / So I cut off my hair and I rode straight away / For the wild unknown country where I could not go wrong”.
As ‘Isis’ progresses it is a story about a man who marries a woman called Isis. Shortly he goes off looking for adventure and treasure. As the song progresses the narrator realises his error, and that what he was looking for was at home the whole time “Then I rode back to find Isis just to tell her I love her”.
The brilliance of Dylan is how he uses his reallife situations for his songs, but does so in a way that makes you question whether he has or not. This is evident on ‘Isis’. The song was written during a separation with his wife Sara. The themes of separation were not lost on this rabid fanbase who tried to piece together that was going on at home in the music.
‘Isis’ ends with the lyrics: “Isis, oh, Isis, you mystical child / What drives me to you is what drives me insane / I still can remember the way that you smiled / On the fifth day of May in the drizzlin' rain” which takes us back to the beginning and is one of the most romantic things Dylan ever penned. (Nick Roseblade)
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'Temporary like Achilles'
A rare moment of yearning, 'Temporary Like Achilles' makes rejection sexy. Crooning while a slow, moody beat, you can hear Dylan throwing a strop with each word. Begging, “you know I want your loving / honey, why are you so hard?”, 'Temporary Like Achilles' creates a bluesy track out of Dylan’s stomped feet, for once unable to get what he wants.
Full of rich Greek god imagery and abstract visions in an attempt to hide his hurt ego, this is a different take on Dylan’s love songs. (Lucy Harbron)
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'Boots Of Spanish Leather'
Undeniably one of Dylan’s greatest love songs, 'Boots Of Spanish Leather' combines of the his best bits; a emotive, muted acoustic guitar backing, holding up a heavy story-telling lyric.
Dripping with heartache and regret, it has a real notebook-fresh quality, as if it was build from one liners, scribbled down right in the depth of a heartbreak. Resulting in lyrics that read more like sonnets, this track could be plucked straight from the anthology of Keats or Byron.
Staying on the same path of yearning from start to finish, all focus remains on the tender lyric thats subtly gut-wrenching and glaring in its genius. (Lucy Harbon)
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'Tangled Up In Blue'
Much to Dylan's personal protestation, 1975 album 'Blood On The Tracks' is perennial pegged as a break up album. It's easy to see why: it's a song cycle of fractured love stories, with characters allowing themselves to enter one another's lives, only to leave before the impact can be truly realised.
'Tangled Up In Blue' is a tale of a poor boy falling for a rich girl, a song that picks apart class differences – "Papa's bank book wasn't big enough" – and wayward paths. A song that traverses America from the Great North Woods to Delacroix, it somehow never travels anywhere at all, the kind of impermanence that leads only to winding up back at the same old place.
The lyrics speak about being cursed by minor differences, while revelling in the grace common humanity can afford. Backstage at a strip joint Dylan winds up listening to the lines of Dante being recited, before starting his journey once more. Typical of its parent album, the narrative twists and turns, doubling back on itself – it's all held together by love, though, and the feeling that a connection, once made, isn't easily shrugged off. As he puts it: "We always did feel the same / We just saw it from a different point of view…" (Robin Murray)
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'Absolutely Sweet Marie'
A song penned for 'Blonde On Blonde', 'Absolute Sweet Marie' lacks the emotional heft of 'Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands', and the Kerouac inspired stream-of-consciousness that propels 'Visions Of Johanna'.
What it taps into, though, is the delirium of love, the way your senses can be knocked; it's an undeniably sweet, highly sensual song, packed with Dylan's one-of-a-kind use of imagery – from the "Persian drunkard" to the "ruins of your balcony" its dream-like narrative disruption is softly overwhelming.
A song that seems to portray Dylan as some love-lorn outlaw – "to live outside the law you must be honest" – it subverts these notions in a sly, satirical way, one that cinema arguably wouldn't catch up to until the dawn of the 70s.
An amphetamine driven Billy The Kid who "can't give his address out to bad company", Dylan just wants to love, and be loved in return. (Robin Murray)
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Much has been made of Bob Dylan's latter-day work. Together with Johnny Cash, the Bard has mapped out a different kind of rock lexicon, one that switches from the promise of youth to the weight of experience. 'Love Sick' – from his 1997 album 'Time Out Of Mind' – finds Dylan pursued by the past, a sick, cynical soul unable to shrug off his memories.
Stark and unrelenting, 'Love Sick' utilises an economy of phrasing – "Sometimes / The silence can be like thunder" – this is simply unforgettable, a haiku-like resonance that distills his verbosity down into a thick, tar-like elixir. A song that dares to be simply, 'Love Sick' is the lover at their most resentful, bound by their own feelings, desperate to be free of themselves – at the end, we find only surrender. "Just don't know what to do / I'd give anything to / Be with you…" (Robin Murray)
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