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Another album in his domestic period, not his best collaboration with The Band
on 2 October 2007
PLANET WAVES is an important album in Dylan's career, thought not necessarily an essential purchase for any one but the fans of the man. While his best albums are undeniably important records in the pantheon of the rock canon, PLANET WAVES is not among that elite. But first, let's review examine Dylan's history around this time.
Dylan had been fairly quiet since the late 1960s, and while he had released three albums (one, NASHVILLE SKYLINE, with a significant hit, "Lay Lady Lay") SELF PORTRAIT was seen by most as a critical blunder, and while NEW MORNING was hailed as something of a return to form, NM did not capture the wildness and overall sound of his earlier material.
The first major event occurred in 1973, when Dylan was chosen to record a soundtrack for Sam Peckinpah's film PAT GARRET & BILLY THE KID. Not only that, he also got a part in the movie. While the soundtrack was his first recorded work to be released since 1970's NEW MORNING, the soundtrack was largely instrumental, with only four of its ten tracks featuring Dylan singing. Of those four songs, three of those tracks were different versions of the same song, a ballad about Billy the Kid. The only major song to come out of the soundtrack was "Knocking on Heaven's Door", an admittedly great song.
The second major event came when Dylan announced he would be leaving Columbia Records, his label from the beginning of his career, to go to the newly formed Asylum Records.
The third major event, announced very shortly after Dylan jumped ship for Asylum, was the announcement that Bob Dylan would be embarking on his first major tour in eight years. Not only that, Dylan would be touring with The Band, who had been his backing band (known then as The Hawks) on his legendary 1966 world tour. By 1974, The Band's star power and renown was as vital as Dylan's, and the tour was a tremendous financial success.
Columbia's response to this turn of events was swift. They quickly issued an album they simply and unimaginitevly named DYLAN (though it is known as A FOOL SUCH AS I in Europe), comprised primarily of NEW MORNING outtakes (seven songs), and two SELF PORTRAIT outtakes. Most of the material was terrible, the album was panned, and Dylan himself tried barring the record from release. DYLAN came out a mere two months before PLANET WAVES, and commonly regarded as the worst album in the Dylan oeuvre. Most regard the album as a revenge move by Columbia. The songs largely sound like warmups.
Though he had two releases since his last studio album, NEW MORNING, Dylan had not recorded a full album's worth of original material since 1970, the longest interval at that time that Dylan had gone between albums.
Dylan wanted to tour behind some new material. As he would be touring with The Band, he also decided to record a new album with The Band as his studio band. This was a major event in its own right. For one, though his 1966 live music with The Band was legendary, and together they had recorded the famous Basement Tapes songs (several of which were huge hits for other artists and remain today among Dylan's most famous work), in 1974 the only officially released music that featured Dylan backed by the band was an obscure 1966 single that had a live version of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues".
Another key factor that made this album so heavily anticipated by the rock community [record buying public] was, whereas in 1967 The Band was known only as Dylan's backing band, by 1974, they were a major creative force in their own right, and was as highly regarded (their stature has since been slightly diminished) as any of the other rock artists of their day.
Knowing this history, and especially knowing the Basement Tapes (bootleg or otherwise), you may go in expecting the wild, weird, Americana vibe Greil Marcus describes in his OLD, WEIRD AMERICA (a book about the basement tapes). Naturally, The Band had been with Dylan for a good portion of his most famous music, and easily his most famous tour, and people were expecting a rather remarkable album from this legendary pairing. And do they deliver?
Sort of. The songs are loose and funky, but for such a famous pairing, especially as this is the first full album Dylan and The Band ever commercially released, some may find it rather disappointing. Rather than returning to the electric sound of the mid 1960s, or the wild, exhilarating music of Big Pink's basement, Dylan instead laid down songs that are largely explorations of domestic life. Dylan, just like the basement sessions, runs the show here. The album does not play like a Band record from that period, who were steeped in Americana, but rather follows Dylan's artistic progression up to that point.
From 1969 to 1974, Dylan changed directions musically and lyrically from where he was at in the 1960s. Dylan entered into his domestic period with NASHVILLE SKYLINE, playing music with a laid-back country-rock vibe largely concerned with family life, with this period culminating in the majestic BLOOD ON THE TRACKS in 1975. The albums from this period are individual snapshots of his homelife, or matters closely concerned with the plain, everyday living, as opposed to the high poetic output of his earlier LPs.
PLANET WAVES is a natural building block in that road. What is important about PLANET WAVES is there is an underlying tension throughout the entire album, where Dylan is torn both artistically and in his homelife.
Unlike NEW MORNING, where he seemed positively happy with his home life (which was probably just an illusion, trying to convince himself he was happy), PLANET WAVES shows the edges fraying. Dylan's no longer quite so sure he has really found happiness, but is willing to fight for it. He has the almost hymn like ode to his children (two takes of "Forever Young", the first being the most famous). But his love life, however, indicates there's trouble in Paradise, though he ends the album with a love song to his wife, "The Wedding Song."
"The Wedding Song" is the most important song on the album, and squarely shows you where Dylan's head was at during the 1969-1974 period of his career. He says it was never his intention or duty to remake the world at large, but to live a simple life and to live blessed with his wife and family. But he knows his domestic situation is unstable and fragile, and can easily far apart if not handled very carefully. "The Wedding Song" is as much Dylan convincing himself that his wife is an extremely integral part of his life and they must not part as it is a love song, and you can feel that tension of Dylan trying to maintain his family life under such intense fame and scrutiny.
PLANET WAVES signals the beginning of the end of his domestic period. Even though Dylan was trying to convince himself he needed Sara, and she was his other half, the marriage was on the rocks, and it probably didn't help he was going on tour with The Band, as rock tours are notoriously wild. Dylan's domestic period would ultimately end with BLOOD, and never again would he so openly extol and seek out a normal family life as he did in the 1969-1975 period. While not necessarily Dylan's greatest music, for those wanting to learn more about BLOOD, listen to the 1969-1974 batch of records.
Just like so much of Dylan's career output, while his records are fascinating listens in themselves, they're easier to understand when you know them in the context of his life and artistic direction at the time. PW, in this particular era of Dylan, plays like the last chapter before the climax arrives in a novel. The themes, the pain, the desperate search for resolution and peace so evident in BLOOD are all foreshadowed here on this album. While not necessarily Dylan's greatest music, for those wanting to learn more about BLOOD, listen to the 1969-1974 batch of records
Ultimately, PLANET WAVES is more interesting in context of Dylan's life and career and how he was on the road that led him to his divorce masterpiece BLOOD, than for music itself. While his best albums stand as great music in itself, PW does not hold together that well. For fans looking for more of the Basement Tapes vibe, they will be disappointed. For the average Dylan fan, he'll found some good music and a couple of great songs, but overall as an album nothing that stands up against his best records.
Bottom line: fascinating in terms of his artistic evolution, but otherwise just a middle-of-the-road album of Dylan. Not especially great, but not bad either.