Planet Waves was Bob Dylan's last album before his acrimonious breakup with his wife Sara Lowndes - although she wasn't to finally divorce him until three years later. Overwhelmingly upbeat and full of love, the contrast between this album and his next - the agonised post-breakup masterpiece Blood on the Tracks - is excruciating. Recorded in November of 1974 with The Band providing extremely tight musical backing, Planet Waves is a fine album which gets far less recognition than it deserves. For my money, it is almost - but not quite - up to the standard of classics like Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited, with more emotional power than almost any of his other albums besides its heart-wrenching follow-up.
While the dominant note of the album is cheerful and romantic, the mood is punctuated by two of Dylan's darkest moments, the near-suicidal Dirge and Going, Going, Gone, presenting a slightly uneasy emotional counterpoint to the rest of the album. He might have been deeply in love in the midst of a more or less happy marriage, but he was also feeling alienated by fame and its trappings; and perhaps if he ever entirely lost that brooding edge he would no longer be the Bob Dylan we know and love.
Planet Waves was Dylan's greatest commercial success to date when it was released, becoming the first of his three consecutive (and only) number one albums in the USA, the others being Blood on the Tracks and Desire. Its mass-market popularity is no surprise given its radio-friendly arrangements and uncharacteristically cheerful main subject matter. What strikes me as odd is that it seems to have been largely forgotten by fans - overshadowed, I suppose, by the true greatness of the album that followed.
Taking this thing track by track...
The album opens with On a Night like This, a snugly shivery kind of a song about a freezing night in a log cabin with just a fire and another human for warmth.
There's more frost on the window glass with each new tender kiss...
Track two is the downbeat and disconnected Going, Going, Gone. The music reflects the sad, distant tone of the words; the one moment of potential cheer in the song - kindly advice from his grandmother - seems all the sadder in retrospect, knowing that he and Sara Lowndes, the 'one true love' he must have been thinking of when he sang this, would part painfully before the year was out.
Grandma said 'boy, go and follow your heart
and you'll be fine at the end of the line
all that's gold doesn't shine
don't you and your one true love ever part
Abruptly turning the mood back round again and picking up the pace is Tough Mama, an ambiguous but insistent love song.
With the badge of the lonesome road sewn in your sleeve...
- Hazel is a straight love song with a gentle tune and affectionate lyrics. But who is this 'Hazel' woman?
I'd give you the sky high above,
Oooo - for a little touch of your love.
- Something there is about you is another pretty straightforward love poem, romancing about the things that made him love her and the times that brought them together.
Something there is about you that strikes a match in me -
Is it the way your belly moves, or is it the way your hair blows free?
Or is it because you remind me of something that used to be?
- Forever Young is a song of blessing, presumably written for one or more of his children (more than one source identifies the target as Jakob Dylan, who is now lead singer of The Wallflowers).
May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift,
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift...
- There are two versions of Forever Young on the album; where the first one could almost be sung to a small child as they drift off to sleep, the second is upbeat in a way which suggests that Dylan himself may be hoping to stay forever young enough to rock.
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung,
And may you stay forever young.
- Dirge is, among other things, a litany for a version of himself that Dylan had resolved to leave behind - for the role he had fallen into as a public symbol of rock and roll, and the superficialitty of the interactions that came along with it. In sharp contrast to the rich, almost poppy arrangements on the rest of the album, Dylan's voice here is accompanied only by a piano and a guitar.
I hate myself for loving you, and the weakness that it showed
You were just a painted face on a trip down Suicide Road
The stage was set, the lights went out all around the old hotel
I hate myself for loving you, and I'm glad the curtain fell.
- You Angel You is one of Dylan's most upbeat, dancey love songs; the shift in mood from the misery of Dirge to the joyousness of this is so dramatic as to be slightly jarring - but somehow it seems to fit, all the same.
I never did feel this way before!
Never did get up and walk the floor!
If this is love then gimme more and more and more and more!
- Never Say Goodbye is another sweet love ballad; it shares the loving-in-cold-weather theme and the cosy feeling of On A Night Like This - but it's about a life together, not just a night. Not so long after this was recorded, of course, she finally did say goodbye...
You're beautiful beyond words
You're beautiful to me.
You can make me cry
Never say goodbye.
- In case there was still any room for doubt about how Dylan was feeling, the album closes with Wedding Song...
I love you more than ever, more than time and more than love
I love you more than money and more than the stars above
I love you more than madness, more than dreams upon the sea
I love you more than life itself, you mean that much to me.
Bob Dylan is on guitar, harmonica and vocals; he is joined by The Band:
Bob Dylan Discography