Planet Waves

Bob Dylan

Asylum, 1974

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


In 1974, Bob Dylan was facing an identity crisis. He had been on the circuit for well over a decade and had enjoyed great fame, as well as the musical respect of artists such as The Band and The Grateful Dead. But the folk era was over, and Dylan’s escapade into country music was brief. On top of that, he had left his long-time label Columbia (who retaliated with the infamous Dylan album), and was starting anew on Asylum.

Bob Dylan, in short, had nothing to lose. Teaming up with The Band as his backing musicians again à la The Basement Tapes, he came up with Planet Waves, a natural-sounding album that seemed to place Dylan in the same musical styles as the Dead and The Band.

Here’s the funny thing: it works.

Dylan is in fine voice throughout the 11 tracks of this disc, creating a collection of breezily pleasant rock music and heartfelt ballads for the bulk of the disk, and only dipping back into his folk roots at the very end. How this all works together so well is beyond me, but it does.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Granted, this disc could have been a disaster. For one thing, including two different versions of the same song (“Forever Young”) – back-to-back, even – slaps fate in the face by suggesting you didn’t have enough strong material to pad out the album. While I might not have put them back-to-back (if memory serves me right, one version ended the first side of the vinyl, while the second one opened side two), the two versions work because of the different styles each one is attacked with. You’re not listening to a sped-up mirrored image the second time around; it actually feels and sounds like you’re listening to an entirely different song.

While Dylan is obviously not trying to intentionally copy the sound of either band, you can definitely hear influences of the Grateful Dead and The Band in some of the songs. For the latter, this is not unexpected, since they are the rhythm section (this is where disaster number two could have happened – just because previous collaborations worked well was not a guarantee that the same magic would be there.) But if you listen to songs like “Tough Mama” and, to a lesser extent, tracks like “Going, Going, Gone” and “Dirge,” you can almost hear a style similar to what the Dead were doing at that time on the Mars Hotel album. It’s a musical style that works quite well for Dylan, capturing the finer points of his vocal performances with solid musicianship and songwriting.

If there is any complaint with Planet Waves, it’s that it can drag a little at times. Whereas the first half of the album bristles with energy, the second half ebbs a bit, with tracks like “Dirge” and “You Angel You.” This is not to say that these performances are bad; rather, it just took me several listens to really be able to appreciate their nuances. A cursory listen almost will find the listener pushing these tracks into the background, but they are deserving of full attention.

While the musical style of Planet Waves is one that I don’t personally think Dylan could have stayed with for the remainder of his career, it was one of great comfort and freedom for the former Robert Zimmerman and resulted in a very enjoyable album. For neophytes to the world of all things Dylan, this is definitely one of the first albums they should pick up.

Rating: B

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© 2008 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Asylum, and is used for informational purposes only.