In the mid-1970s, Bob Dylan produced a string of albums of mind-boggling brilliance. Each one is like the greatest hits collection of a lesser artist. Even at the height of his 1960s impact when he plugged into the consciousness of a whole generation, he had never before produced songs with such broad emotional reach.
Back in the sixties, Dylan had been besieged by idiot questions from ill-prepared journalists, as you can see from Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home. By the mid-1970s, that slack and arrogant reporting had faded away, but Dylan was facing a huge personal crisis due to troubles in his marriage to his then-wife Sara, The Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands.
That personal sorrow produced the heart-rending keening that shivers through 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. Just less than twelve months later, Dylan released an even finer album in Desire, an album that I love so much that I bought it on CD before I even had a CD player.
Despite his own personal woes, Dylan was still able to add fun and upbeat songs to his repertoire, like Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts on Blood on the Tracks and Romance in Durango on Desire. However, just before those albums, Dylan produced what I consider to be his finest work of all, the gorgeous, passionate and positive Planet Waves.
When this album is mentioned at all, it is rarely included among Dylan’s classic works. Many people probably only know its songs from live performances, such as Dylan’s turn of Forever Young on another Scorsese documentary, The Band’s Last Waltz. For anyone who has never listened to the album before, I really recommend it as a complete immersive experience. It also features some of Dylan’s finest singing, putting the lie to those people who claim that his voice is a sort of nasal wail.
In the middle of the album is one of his most profound compositions, the already mentioned Forever Young, which is played twice: first slow and then fast. That seems a bit odd on CD, but on the original vinyl, one version ended side one and the other began side two. You had to turn the LP over before hearing the other version of the song, and sometimes that never happened as people just left the record on one side of the turntable.
Dylan recorded Planet Waves with The Band, who are all highly talented and versatile musicians, steeped in the music of the old South. Even so, the story goes that when they finished recording Forever Young in the studio, everybody fell silent, and there was a moment of quiet as though they were all slightly shocked by what they had done.
It’s an awesome song and the beating heart of a cracking album. I particularly like the way that Dylan uses the harmonica like a second voice in the song.
Of all Dylan’s albums, Planet Waves is the one I play the most. Every time up I come up against that song, it stops time all over again. It’s funny how with all the really great songs, every time you listen, it’s like hearing them again for the very first time.