Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Monday, 11 May 2015

14. Planet Waves (1974)

Planet Waves came out on Dylan's new label Asylum just eight weeks after Columbia issued the collection of odds and ends that was the disappointing 'Dylan'.  It was written and recorded quite hastily in order to have something to tour behind, as David Geffen had persuaded him to go back out on the road after an eight-year break.  Both the album and the '74 tour reunited Bob with The Band, and Planet Waves was the first and only studio album (save for the Basement Tapes) with the group as whole backing him up.

It opens with the bluesy shuffle of On A Night Like This, where we find Bob still enjoying cosy coupledom in a remote cabin, with a roaring fire on the go and singing "If I'm not too far off, I think we did this once before".  If I'm not too far off, I think they did, on To Be Alone With You back in 1969.  It's a fun number, and the bit where he asks his missus not to elbow him because there's "plenty a-room for all" is a neat little flash of humour.  Another fun, mostly light-hearted song is the funky Tough Mama, again seemingly in praise of his beloved wife, although it gets darker towards the end where he's crestfallen, having "..gained some recognition but I lost my appetite".  And yes, you did hear him right, he does describe the weather as "a-hotter than a crotch"!  Garth Hudson's organ sounds sweeter than ever, playing us out with a twisting fairground confection, and it's clear that Dylan and his old pals fit together as well as they ever did, completely in tune with one another in every sense.  It has to be said though, that The Band feel a little reined in over the album; for one thing it lacks their backing vocals, which I feel is a bit of a shame.  But although Dylan is clearly in the driving seat here, the guys are solid and they serve him well.

Something that holds Planet Waves back from being in the upper echelons of his discography so far in the BobBox (for me at least) is its pace.  Most of the songs are either slow or mid-tempo, and as a result the album seems to proceed sluggishly. The heartfelt delivery of Hazel makes up for its rather cliched lyrics, even when Bob goes a little off-key.  Something There Is About You is a lukewarm nostalgic love song made bittersweet by the confession that fidelity would surely mean death to him - charming!  It's one of several songs that would have benefited greatly from a chorus, or at least a stronger melody; another downside of PW for me is its lack of tunes.  If you asked me right now to hum, for example You Angel You, I really couldn't, despite having heard it countless times over the past week.  Although the goddess-worshipping lyrics are giddy with infatuation and The Band play with an enjoyable sloppiness, it has a weak tune and Dylan sounds tired and unconvincing.

One big positive is that Bob's voice is better than ever; I'd even go so far as to describe it as magnificent.  Neither overly nasal nor weirdly croony, it sounds particularly good (if a bit creaky) on Never Say Goodbye where he's almost pleading for his lover to stand by him.  It's best of all on Going Going Gone, which represents the other, darker side of Planet Waves.  Whether he's referring to his career, marriage (which was in its last months) or less likely, life itself, he seems to have reached the end of the road and is preparing to enter the unknown for the first time in a long while.  Coming after the jaunty opener On A Night Like This, the pain and resignation in his voice is both shocking and beautiful, and is sensitively augmented by Robertson's devastatingly expressive guitar.

Equally superb is the best known song on the album, the much-covered Forever Young.  This prayer-like song with its universal theme of a parent's hopes for his child manages to stay the right side of mawkishness; this and the fact that it has a tune AND a decent chorus has no doubt helped it to become the anthem it is now.  During the recording sessions a visitor jokingly accused Dylan of turning "mushy" in his old age (he was 32!), and in an uncharacteristic confidence-wobble he recorded an alternative sub three-minute country rock version.  He was convinced to keep the original one on the album too, so on the CD the newer version - which I hate - immediately follows the gorgeous, hymnal version, completely ruining any lingering sentiment.  On the LP they would have been separated by the need to flip the record, mitigating this effect somewhat, but I still think he should have left the crappy second-rate version in the vaults.

We return to the dark side with Dirge, where Dylan takes to the piano to tear himself apart over his dependency on.... what?  Whether it's fame, drugs, a lover or even love itself ("Can't recall a useful thing you ever did for me"), this is the sound of a man in pain, and the first sign of bile in several years.  Like many of the songs here it lacks melody but Robertson's acoustic guitar is enough to support Bob's playing and deeply disturbing, sometimes clumsy words so that it sticks firmly in my head.

'Dirge' means 'funeral song', and the album closer, at first glance the other side of the coin, is called Wedding Song.  Bob appears solo, accompanied by his harmonica, guitar and the sound of his coats buttons clacking against it.  Clearly about Sara (he makes mention of their many years together and their children) he sings of his devotion and debt to her in no uncertain terms, e.g. "Love you more than life itself", "..made my life a richer one to live".  But there's more going on here the further we listen.  Halfway through, the line "I'd sacrifice the world for you and watch my senses die" , and then "We'll play it out the best we know, whatever it is worth" make the preceding words sound like a desperate attempt at holding together a failing relationship, no matter the consequences.  It's a sad way to end a rather unsatisfying album, but at the same time it's one of the best songs.

Planet Waves is preoccupied with two conflicting sides of love.  The comfortable, comforting bubble of his family life and his deep love and commitment to his wife inform most of the album, but dissatisfaction is beginning to creep in and it seems that something is about to give.  Perhaps this period of writing/recording in preparation for the tour brought on a desire to get on the road and extend himself again after his long hibernation period.  Whatever was happening in his personal life, this album shows signs of his edge beginning to return, which after the happy-but-dumb country period will come as a welcome change.

Are you a fan of Planet Waves?  Let me know how you feel about it in the comments below.

Next in the Box is the live album Before The Flood, recorded during the '74 tour.  I've been perusing the tracklist and no songs from Planet Waves made the cut - I read that as the tour progressed, more and more of its songs were dropped from the setlist.  After the fairly tune-free PW I'm very much looking forward to listening to the first live album to be included in the BobBox.

*****BobBox price check***** - £101.57 (free postage) - still down by £42 from a week ago!
Discogs - from £109.17
Spin CDs - £119.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99

All prices correct on 11/05/2015

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