BOB DYLAN: PLANET WAVES (1974)
1) On A Night Like This; 2) Going Going Gone; 3) Tough Mama; 4) Hazel; 5) Something There Is About You; 6) Forever Young; 7) Forever Young (v. 2); 8) Dirge; 9) You Angel You; 10) Never Say Goodbye; 11) Wedding Song.
Blood On The Tracks may be more «polished», generally accomplished and certainly better known, but Dylan's fourth phase — that of the «introverted / tortured / self-centered songwriter» — properly begins here, on this somewhat half-hearted collaboration with The Band. A three-year break from «proper» songwriting, or at least recording, can sometimes be detrimental, and, in fact, I have always tended to look at Planet Waves as the first official album in Dylan's career to be seriously plagued with meandering filler. But «temporary loss / slackening of songwriter skills» was not the only reason for this impression.
As Bob's family life was beginning to disintegrate in his most serious personal crisis to date, there was no way he could avoid letting his feelings on the matter spill out — in fact, this was probably the first time in his life when he found himself hurting so bad, it couldn't help but lend an air of deep tragedy to everything he was doing. There is a bunch of cheerful, happy songs on Planet Waves — in fact, it starts out with quite a merry romp — but they mostly sound forced, sometimes almost hyperbolically so: the only reason I can see for the existence of the second, «upbeat» and rather corny version of ʽForever Youngʼ sequenced right after the first, slow and melancholy one, is to show how very, very, very hard it is for the man to stay optimistic.
ʽGoing Going Goneʼ, ʽDirgeʼ, ʽHazelʼ, and ʽWedding Songʼ all convey a sense of desperation, the likes of which Dylan fans had never yet experienced from the man. Before the crash, he was fierce, cocky, locked up tight, and most of the genuine feelings that seeped in through the walls were aggressive. After the crash, he'd softened up, got subtler and wiser, but everything generated in 1967-70 was still primarily an act of mystification — we never saw an inch of «the real Dylan» on either John Wesley Harding or Self Portrait (never mind the misleading title), or if we did, there was no surefire telling where exactly he would pop up.
Planet Waves, from that angle, is the first «mature» Dylan album, although «maturity» is by no means associated with higher quality — it simply means that the man gets more... well, more grounded in concrete personal situations, I'd say. The biggest shift is in the lyrics department, as the sophisticated wordplay starts making more literal sense. The love songs are good old-fashioned love songs, none of that "ceremonies of the horsemen" «bullshit», and the lost, or, rather, in-the-process-of-getting-lost love songs are all soaked with fear, anxiety, depression, even occasional guilt and remorse (though mostly implied, particularly on ʽDirgeʼ, where the exaggerated hatred thrown at the female antagonist reveals hatred of oneself — he'd be much more careful about whitewashing his own spirit on Blood On The Tracks). And with ʽForever Youngʼ, he is really concerned about writing a song that could be sung as a meaningful lullaby to a three-year old — without having to worry about the three-year old asking unanswerable questions about Captain Arab and those one-eyed midgets.
All of this means that there is a transition taking place, and that the transition is rough. Neither, I am afraid, was his choice of The Band to back him up during the recording sessions here as good as all the previous choices. Robertson and Co. do not seem to have properly sensed that change in Bob, or, if they did, they weren't able to fully latch on to it. They could certainly sound somber and tragic if they'd worked themselves up for it, but it almost seems like they thought they were just going in for another round of Basement Tapes, and realized that they weren't when it was already much too late. The music tends to be a little relaxed, a little sloppy, generally sparse and spontaneous (none of the production intricacies of The Band's first two or three albums found their way on here — not that Bob would be interested, of course), more appropriate for a quiet campfire evening ("on a night like this!") without too much on your mind than for a soul-baring session. Just a big mistake on Dylan's part here — his first big one, I'd say.
That said, more than half of the songs still pass the grade. ʽForever Youngʼ is the only «golden classic», but it is, indeed, the first straightforwardly anthemic song that Bob wrote in about a decade, cleverly worded so as to appeal to his kids as well as a general audience — and as simple as the melody is, there is a touch of easily cracked genius here: the "forever young, forever young" chorus is sung with such a tragic inclination that the emptiness of the wish becomes felt. This is basically a prayer to reach the unreachable, and we have the whole bunch here — love, affection, sadness, desperation, acceptance of fate. Small wonder the chorus did not make it to the second, upbeat version: it has no place there whatsoever, as the vibe is completely different (and utterly anticlimactic; whoever would prefer the second part to the first would fit my personal understanding of a proverbially «heartless» person).
My second favorite song would probably have to be ʽGoing Going Goneʼ — the one that must have played out like a shock to the listeners after the expectable little opening folk dance of ʽOn A Night Like Thisʼ. Luckily, Robbie got the vibe right on this one, adding some quietly dry, stingy electric lead lines — nasty pain impulses reflecting the protagonist's state of mind — and the lyrics do not mince words much: "I've just reached a place / Where the willow don't bend / There's not much more to be said / It's the top of the end". And on one hand, it is funny that the proverbial «top of the end» has been stretched out to about forty years now, with the total amount of everything that has been said (and written, and sung) far exceeding what had been done in the previous decade — and yet on the other hand, he is also absolutely correct: Planet Waves is the first, and far from the last, album in Bob's career on which he is not searching for anything new, he just says it all the way it is. ʽGoing Going Goneʼ is not the first time that he had sounded depressed, but it is the first time he sounds depressed about himself, rather than Hattie Carroll, St. Augustine, or the chronologically frozen inhabitants of Desolation Row.
ʽDirgeʼ and ʽWedding Songʼ raise the bar on tension even further — the music is stripped down to its basics (on ʽDirgeʼ it is just Bob on minimal piano and Robbie accompanying him on acoustic, on ʽWedding Songʼ Dylan goes completely solo) and the singer's voice is raised to a scandalous howl. Melodically, they are not too interesting, and the howling prevents subtlety, but it all essentially depends on whether you are willing to empathize or if you think that the songs exude too much self-pitying, and that their monotonousness makes them either too boring or just simply too unbearable. Difficult decision; I am not a big fan of either, but it seems like this kind of stuff was something Bob needed to do at the time (ʽWedding Songʼ was written and recorded at the very last moment, like a final attempt to get that particular stone off his back).
I cannot say anything positive about songs like ʽNever Say Goodbyeʼ or ʽTough Mamaʼ except that all my years of Dylan-listening experience come together to suggest that Bob's heart just wasn't in them. He may have felt that getting back to a little rock'n'roll with his old friends at his side would do him good, but this is limp, half-assed rock'n'roll, a far cry from the spirited performances of 1965-66. ʽOn A Night Like Thisʼ, where they turn down the volume and place their faith in Garth Hudson's accordeon, works much better than all those other numbers put together — perhaps because it is not so far removed from the soft country-rock sound that was fresher in Bob's memory than his «garage» days. Like a fussier, merrier take on ʽI'll Be Your Baby Tonightʼ where the singer is at last ready for some active participation; Bob's "...and let it burn, burn, burn, burn on a night like this" is my second favorite bit of phrasing on the record after the ʽForever Youngʼ chorus.
All in all, this just doesn't properly fit the criteria for a «thumbs up» type of album. Like The Times They Are A-Changin', this is essential listening for everyone interested in Bob's thorny evolution path, but it only has two or three essential songs on it, as such: to the ones already listed one could, perhaps, add the New Morning-style soul ballad ʽHazelʼ, and that's just about it. (No wonder that most of these songs would not be revisited by Bob in subsequent concert performances — only ʽForever Youngʼ and, to a lesser extent, ʽHazelʼ seem to have survived his personal reassessment). What I see here is a temporarily derailed man, unable to properly pull it together, and a bunch of old friends who do not really understand how they can help. But even if it is a relative «disaster», its very disastrous nature makes it all the more intriguing for the non-casual Dylan fan, not to mention the Dylan historian.
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