Planet Waves (1974)
The comeback album! At least popularly. This was Dylan’s first album to hit number one on the charts. With critics, it didn’t sit that well. They just saw it as a way to capitalize on his return to the concert arena with his first tour in eight years, a swing through North America with The Band. Interestingly, though they back him on this album, very few of the songs from Planet Waves were featured in the shows. It was mostly an oldies show focusing on Dylan’s electric material from the mid-60s with a smattering of hits from before and after that. While not an unqualified success, the album’s modesty is a strength, and is what keeps songs like “Hazel” and “Something There Is About You” from getting bogged down in nostalgia. Also, two songs hinted at Dylan’s next direction. One was “Dirge,” which I’ll discuss below, and the other was “Wedding Song,” written for and added to the album at the last minute. “Wedding Song” is unaccompanied, probably because it was added too late for the Band to develop an arrangement around it. It seems like a love song at first, but lines like “eye for eye and tooth for tooth, your love cuts like a knife” and “I love you more than blood” have a dark undercurrent to them.
Best song: Dirge – This song slays you. Every line is more damning than the last, which is a hard trick to pull off when you start with “I hate myself for loving you.” Dylan is on piano and Robbie Robertson is on guitar. That’s it. This, along with bits of “Going, Going, Gone” and “Wedding Song” gave a prelude to what would follow on Blood On the Tracks.
Worst song: Forever Young – Version two. The fast version. The version Wyclef Jean raps to in a Pepsi commercial. Or was it Will.I.am? Two idea men more known for helping lead hip-hop conglomerates than for their own work. The clichés and platitudes that fill this – written for Dylan’s sons and attempting to combine fatherly warmth with Jewish ethics – are just as interchangeable as Will and Wyclef. At least the slow version is musically sensitive; this sped up version is sloppy and has a less forgiving melody.
Best outtake: Nobody ‘Cept You – The album had to end with a nice acoustic number. This song is pleasant enough. It is what songs like “Hazel” and “You Angel You” aspire to. They both made the cut and this didn’t. It is a simple enough love song. There is nothing special to it, but it isn’t bad either. Near the end of the sessions, Dylan wrote and recorded “Wedding Song” in a fury, and recorded it sans band. It had the acoustic sound he wanted with a lot more attitude, and so it filled the last spot on the album and this got consigned to the dust bin.
Notable live version: Tough Mama – Ever since Dylan and The Band tore it up in ’66, fans had been hungry for more rock. When Planet Waves was put together, it was mostly done put out as a piece of product that would accompany the tour. Not much time was spend on it (though that may be true of many Dylan albums) as art, but rather as trying to cash in on excitement. Given that goal, it is surprising how few of the songs here have a party atmosphere to them. The album only has two songs with the kind of swinging bass lines that one would expect Dylan and the Band to come up with for such a joyous occasion as ‘74’s Dylan comeback tour. The two songs are “On A Night Like This” and “Tough Mama.” “On A Night Like This” has never been performed live, but “Tough Mama” has. The version I have in mind is from the late ‘90s, not the mid ‘70s; no songs off of Planet Waves made it onto Before the Flood, the piece of product Dylan moved as a tour souvenir. This isn’t particularly surprising given that the album hit number one on the basis of advance orders from record stores and then sold poorly. Fans came to hear the old songs. Planet Waves was released ten days into the tour, and about three weeks after that nearly all of the songs on it were pulled from the setlists. Tapers then didn’t have the technology they do now and most of the extant recordings of Planet Waves songs from the tour are in poor sound quality.
Rhymes: Goddess/modest; crotch/watch/notch; crestfallen/a-haulin’ (“Tough Mama”); baton/on (“Something There Is About You”); machine/seen (“Dirge”)
Images: “meat shakin’ on your bones” (“Tough Mama”); “the phantoms of my youth” (“Something There Is About You”); “the hollow place where martyrs weep and angels play with sin” (“Dirge”); “barb wire & thrashing clowns;” “Apache poets searching through the ruins for a glimpse of Buddha” (liner notes)
Axioms: “All that’s gold isn’t meant to shine” (“Going, Going, Gone”); “I’ve gained some recognition, but I lost my appetite” (“Tough Mama”); “I could say that I’d be faithful, but to you that would be cruelty and to me it surely would mean death”(“Something There Is About You”) “In this age of fiberglass I’m searching for a gem” (“Dirge”); “Found Jacob’s Ladder up against an adobe ball, bought a serpent from a passing angel.” (liner notes)