Planet Waves; or, I’m Going Under

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For this project, I’m attempting to forget what I know about the Dylan albums to come. But since we’re on the eve of the album that prompted this project (that being Blood on the Tracks), I’m going to make a small exception. Planet Waves, which features Dylan with The Band, reminds me of Highway 61 Revisited in that both are excellent albums in themselves, both represent Dylan at the far-edge of experimentation, and both precede utter greatness. A turn of the screw here in terms of storytelling and production value leads to the fully realized voice and arrangement we find on… But wait. I’m way ahead of myself now.

On Planet Waves, The Band slips into such an easy, rolling rhythm that these songs hardly feel like they begin or end; rather, they tap into a continuous stream of rock’n’roll. From a wide-angle vantage, the album, too, slides without friction into its material. “On a Night Like This” opens like a window into a backwoods hoedown then fades into “Going, Going, Gone,” an anthem in minor proclaiming an escape from the “scene”–dating, party, and otherwise–to settle down with one’s love. “Tough Mama” jumps with all the bluesy funk The Band can muster, Levon’s drums as textured and expressive as any stringed instrument. There’s a real sense here that this group has hit their groove.
Zoning out on the C-line, beginning to wonder after those three tracks if Planet Waves would turn out to be the most underrated album in the Dylan collection, I missed my stop, and I ended up in the subway. Underground, underneath the city. Under the spell of that rolling-rhythm band. Tapped into the collective momentum of words and music, longing and loving. Then I and it all came back up again.

While I do feel this album is underrated, it struggles to uphold that consistency throughout. The best verse on “You Angel You” goes, “You’re as fine as can be / the way you walk and the way you talk / I feel I could almost sing.” This is a clever conceit for a man already singing. The worst verse begins the same way but concludes that her walk and talk “is the way it ought to be.” That easy rhyme, to me, feels uninspired.

There’s always something to complain about with a Dylan album, I’m finding, though the weight of his music is undeniably epic. Take for example the two versions of “Forever Young”– one slow, one fast–included on this album back-to-back. With any other artist, these alternate versions might reveal a weakness in either one. Here they do reveal strengths and weaknesses of each rendition, but more than that, they evince Dylan’s propensity to tinker with his tracks, his sound, his style and persona. Bob’s songs are always works in progress.

Do I get Planet Waves? I understand it as Dylan and The Band formalizing the rocking folk they’d been playing together for years, forthcoming on The Basement Tapes. Do I need the previous albums? This sound of this sixth album post-Blonde on Blonde feels on the cusp of delivering something special, something arrived upon through that recent sequence of albums. Do I like it? As “Wedding Song” is the final track, I do.

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