Many casual observers of Bob Dylan’s long, rollercoaster career will rightly see the spell from his second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) to his seventh album Blonde On Blonde (1966) as his most poignant and important era. They will also often see the next nine years as a commercial downfall until 1975’s comeback triumph with Blood On The Tracks. This second assertion, however, is not entirely true on paper.
While it did appear that Dylan’s recorded output took a creative and commercial slump in the years following Blonde On Blonde (which some people blame on the near-fatal motorcycle accident he endured in 1966 one month following the release of the album), Dylan’s return to commercial success can definitely be placed before Blood On The Tracks. Firstly, between 1966 and 1975, Dylan released five hit albums and two relatively well-charting compilations; secondly, Planet Waves, the record preceding Blood On The Tracks, became Dylan’s first album to reach number one on the US Billboard charts on this day (February 16th) in 1974.
Planet Waves has ostensibly been lost to the winds of time, at least more so than much of his other work in the 1960s and ‘70s. The single ‘Forever Young’ has been the only material from the album to have remained a big hit to this day, despite the commercial success of the album at the time. After Dylan’s three-year quiet patch, following the release of 1970’s New Morning, he decided to regroup with The Band, the backing group who had previously accompanied him on his 1965-66 tour. The group had since become a hit act in their own right but leapt at the opportunity to work with Dylan again.
As guitarist of The Band, Robbie Robertson recalled of the reunion, it was as simple as picking up where they had left off. “We know the technique very well,” he told Melody Maker. “We’ve been playing with Bob for years. There are no surprises involved. We did it and it was over before we knew it. We were preoccupied with the tour, and the album really took a backseat.”
The album is one of the finest examples of The Band’s astonishing ability to mould to the artistic whim of Dylan. The recording sessions were purportedly conducted in a very loose and improvisational manner as The Band seamlessly followed Dylan’s lead. Rob Fraboni, the chief sound engineer at the time, said of the sessions: “What was incredible was that they were so in tune with Bob, such great musicians, and so intuitive, they were able to basically just watch Bob’s hands on the chord changes and play along. It might have taken a take or two for them to learn the songs, but these were songs that they had never played before.”
The most prominent track on the record, ‘Forever Young’, appears in two versions, a slow version and a faster number. Fraboni remembered the recording of this song with particular clarity: “Bob said to me that he had carried this song around in his head for several years and he had never written it down, and now he wasn’t quite sure how to record it.” As a result of this, five different versions were recorded and cut. The slow version has since become the most cherished incarnation of the classic track, it was recorded in one take, as Fraboni recalled: “I remember sitting behind the board thinking, ‘My God, I’ve never witnessed anything like this in my life. The sheer, emotional intensity and musicianship was amazing.” After the track was complete, the group, including Dylan, bundled into the control room for the playback. “At the end, no one said a word and everyone kind of wandered out of the control room,” Fraboni remembered.
The album, as a whole, is a very satisfying listen with a nice range of themes covered to give it balance. Some of the tracks take on the form of traditional love songs, particularly the first track ‘On A Night Like This’ and ‘You Angel You’. Other songs on the album face slightly more sullen and melancholy subject matter, especially ‘Dirge’ and ‘Going, Going, Gone’ which brandish the themes of death and suicide. The closing track on the album, ‘Wedding Song’, seems to connotate an internal battle with love. It is debated just how autobiographical the song is for Dylan, but it appears that the song poses as a counter to ‘Dirge’ which celebrates morbid loneliness rather than love and partnership, thus augmenting the aforementioned balance of the album.
Planet Waves definitely doesn’t contend with the groundbreaking and career-defining releases of the mid-’60s, that were somehow beaten to the top spot on the chart. The commercial success of the album can be partially attributed to the aggressive marketing campaign pursued by Asylum, the record label at the time; however, it most certainly deserves its place in history as one of Dylan’s finer albums, and a great example of The Band’s roots-rock prowess.
Listen to Bob Dylan’s timeless classic ‘Forever Young’ (slow version) below.