(Disclaimer: Those looking for an overall description of the album will find what they're looking for in the "Review Body" section. The section titled "Track Reviews" is meant only for those who want to read detailed descriptions of the songs, and they do not constitute the essence of this review. Lastly and most importantly, this review might not be written in the point of view of a Bob Dylan fan.)
Overall Score: 11/15
Best song: “Forever Young”
Worst song: “Dirge”
Oh man! I can imagine what a Bob Dylan fan must've been thinking in the early '70s. Up until he released Planet Waves in 1974, there had only been one “normal” Dylan album that entire decade. That was 1970's New Morning. His other three albums were two weird covers albums and a soundtrack album. But these fans needn't have lost faith! A comeback was inevitable! And here it was, in 1974, when Bob Dylan started being normal again. Moreover, he recruited The Band to play with him, and—as I'm sure we all realize by now—The Band positively ruled. Granted, they were well past their peaks by 1974, but as far as instrumental ability goes, there were few better than these guys.
But why aren't these songs thrilling the pants off of me? As a Bob Dylan fanboy, shouldn't I be gushing over these things? Yes, this album has a handful of gush-worthy bona fide classics on it, but unfortunately it's not loaded with them. The best song on the album is surely “Forever Young,” which is still widely loved to this day to the point that it's the theme song of a TV show that's currently in production called Parenthood. Its lyrics are simplistic but they sort of hit me squarely in the chest. The melody is soaring and memorable while Dylan's tattered vocals seem precisely suited for it. I'm not sure why he did this, but he recorded that song twice on this album and put them back-to-back. The first one is the best one—the atmospheric and contemplative ballad. However, the second one (still good!) is upbeat and dancey.
I also love the song that opens the album, “On a Night Like This.” Again, Dylan seemed to have long passed by his days of putting complex poetry in his lyrics, but these are quite elegant. (“On a night like this / So glad you came around / Hold on to me so tight / And heat up some coffee grounds / We got so much to talk about / And so much to reminisce / It sure is right / On a night like this.”) But you don't have to pay attention to the lyrics, if you don't want to, because the instrumentation is snappy and the melody is catchy.
The Band's Robbie Robertson—a fine lead guitarist if there ever was one—takes plenty of moments to rock out in here. One of his highlights is the acrobatic performance throughout “Going, Going Gone.” Of course, the power of a good lead guitarist is that he provides a layer of ornamentation that you'll probably only start to really get to know maybe the fifth or sixth time you listen to a song. Another one of my favorite songs of this disc is the sweet and absorbing ballad “Hazel.” I might not go so far as to say that it has a melody that lingers on with me long after the album is through playing, but I find it wholesome and heartwarming. It's a bit like eating a bowl of hot soup after being outside in the snow all day.
There are some unfortunately weak bits toward the end of the album. Notably “Dirge,” which has got to be one of the most boring and tuneless songs that Dylan has ever done. You would think that The Band would have livened it up with some dazzling instrumentation, but that woefully choppy piano nearly ruined it for me. Blah. “You Angel You” is at least more listenable, but I don't find it to be anymore interesting than anything I'd hear on an average Peter Frampton album. Even that guitar sounds like Peter Frampton. Say it ain't so!
“Never Say Goodbye” is a better upbeat song, but I won't claim that there are a whole lot of things it does to keep my yawns suppressed! And what's perhaps the biggest disappointment of them all is “Wedding Song” in which Dylan sings merely with an acoustic guitar and harmonica. ...For sure—he started his career doing that—but he sure as hell didn't write boring melodies and amateurish lyrics like that back in those days.
Because this album had such a disappointingly weak ending, I was tempted to give it a 10. However, upon the power of “Forever Young,” “On a Night Like This,” “Hazel,” and “Going, Going, Gone” giving a 10 to such a record seemed too low. Thus, it became an 11. ...Now, when this album was released, it was critically acclaimed. I think the critics at the time were just excited that Dylan was writing normal songs again for a change, after a four year absence from it. ...Heck, if I was around in 1974, I'd be pretty excited about this, also. But, as I'm looking on these records as historical artifacts, I think Planet Waves ultimately stands as a slight disappointment.
On a Night Like This A
Well hey! Hello there, Mr. Dylan! You're writing songs again! This is the first proper Bob Dylan release since 1970's New Morning, which in terms of the early '70s was pretty much an eternity. I'm sure some of his longtime fans worried that he was going to remain in that semi-retired state for the rest of his career. ...But rest assured, Dylan would stick around for a LONG time. (Last night, I did an inventory of every Bob Dylan album I'm going to review. Holy hell.) ...But this song is so good that I'm sure his fans breathed a sigh of relief after hearing it the first time. The melody is catchy as the DICKENS. Moreover, that's The Band he's playing with, and I'm pretty sure we all know it as a stone-cold fact that The Band ruled. They give Dylan a tight and busy drum beat as well as some awesome accordion playing. So sweet.
Going, Going, Gone A
And they follow up that quickly paced, toe-tapping bit of awesomeness with this more contemplative slow-song. Dylan, being the excellent songwriter that he is, comes up with a melody that's so catchy that I sort of want to sing along with it. The Band also know how to orchestrate it beautifully. Not only is the rhythm section thick and determined, but Robbie Robertson gives us quite a brilliant muted guitar solo. I like how he plays it like a mandolin in some spots. Isn't that weird? The song starts quietly, but it gradually builds up to a large and passionate conclusion.
Tough Mama B+
“Tough Mama” sounds like a song title The Band would come up with... I know Dylan wrote all these songs, but The Band should have written a song with that title! And give it a little bit of mean, thumpy bass! ...Now, there is some thumpy bass in this song, but it's nowhere as mean and snarly as it should be. Although it's still pretty good. ...The song as a whole is just a bit of a disappointment, though. Unlike the previous two songs, the melody doesn't stick in my mind at all. Rather this is more groove-based where the drums are upbeat, the rhythm guitar is bubbly, the keyboard are rockin'... But I wish I could listen to this and really love it! As it stands, I just like it. ...In other words, this isn't Dylan at his best!
Now, this is a good song. It sounds like a Randy Newman song. (I don't think I would have said that if I didn't just see Randy Newman at a concert a week ago! But … well, that melody does come up a bit Randy Newmanish.) The melody is obviously fantastic and as always I like Dylan's delivery of it. The Band helps orchestrate it beautifully with full-sounding guitars and keyboards. It comes off as loose, but the haze it produces is thick. Dylan closes it out with a lovely harmonica solo. ...No sir, I'm not going to complain about anything here!
Something There is About You B
It seems like Dylan is either on fire, in this album, or he's lukewarm. This is one of those lukewarm moments. It's a nice song and The Band continues to orchestrate it very well, but the melody is kind of forgettable. Also, it's quite long—nearly five minutes—and thus by the end, it's quite repetitive, and I'm extremely prone to spacing out to this. ...Now, I've spaced out to more boring things. After all, this is The Band that's orchestrating this, so expect your spaced-out ears to be dazzled with guitars, harmonicas, watery organs, and pianos going all over the place.
Forever Young A+
Now this is something! Easily the most well-known song of the lot... (It's also the theme song to Parenthood, a drama that I was watched for about two dozen episodes when I suddenly realized that I don't give a crap about anyone on it.) So, why has this song stuck around after all these years? Because it RULES, that's why. It's one of the most heartwarming anthems of all time. (“May God bless and keep you always / May your wishes all come true / May you always do for others / And let others do for you / May you build a ladder to the stars / And climb on every rung / May you stay forever young”) Nothing at all against Dylan's more complicated lyrics from the mid-'60s, but there's something more powerful about these direct lyrics, too, aren't there? The melody is fantastic, too.
Forever Young (Continued) A
I don't know why, but he followed that up with a completely different version of the song. I might understand putting one version at the beginning of the album and another version at the end, but it's weird that he put them back-to-back like this. ...This is a more danceably and upbeat version (and also the very one that's the theme-song to that TV show), and it's almost as good. All the same, I prefer the more atmospheric and thoughtfully paced ballad.
This is just about where Dylan loses me. It's a very slowly paced and long-drawn-out piano ballad that isn't terribly interesting the moment it starts... and it never actually becomes interesting—at any point—in its five-and-a-half-minute running length. The piano plays 1/4-chords nearly the entire time, and comes off amateurish in the process. Robertson has a few good licks with his acoustic guitar... which had might as well be the only thing you listen to! Dylan's vocal melody doesn't interest me in the slightest, I'm afraid. ...Sorry. Bob Dylan still rules, though.
You Angel You B
Man! These guys are starting to sound very contemporary to 1974! Not that there's anything wrong with that, but that guitar is so polished and pretty that it makes this song sound like it belongs in a Peter Frampton record! The song itself isn't even that special. It's a nice enough of a pop tune that makes for good at-the-moment listening, but it's one-ear-out-the-other. Dylan's vocals are fine, at least.
Never Say Goodbye B+
Goodbye! ...Sorry, how am I never supposed to use the term “goodbye.” That'll make for some pretty rude endings to telephone conversations... Anyway, this is another good song, but it doesn't thrill the endless crap out of me, or anything. I'm disappointed that Dylan could come up with consistently good melodies as he had seemed to do so effortlessly in the past. Again, once this thing is through playing, it's completely out of my head. At least it's upbeat, and the instrumental quality (thanks to The Band) is quite good!
Wedding Song B
This is where Dylan gets back out the old acoustic guitar and harmonica and sings us a song the way he used to... Except these lyrics aren't too interesting. (“You gave me babies one, two, three, what is more, you saved my life / Eye for eye and tooth for tooth, your love cuts like a knife / My thoughts of you don't ever rest; they'd kill me if I lie / I'd scrifice the world for you and watch my senses die”) The melody is OK, but most folk covers I hear out of old Joan Baez records are more interesting than this one. Moreover, Dylan repeats the old-timey hook so much that it gets dull to my ears. All the same... I guess this isn't bad. Just drab and disappointing.
As a whole, this isn't one of Bob Dylan's most shimmering moments. But at least it has a small handful of excellent tunes!
Read more Bob Dylan reviews by Starcollector!
Bob Dylan (1962) | The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) | The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964) | Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) | Bringing it All Back Home (1965) | Highway 61 Revisited (1965) | Blonde on Blonde (1966) | John Wesley Harding (1967) | Nashville Skyline (1969) | Self Portrait (1970) | Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) | Planet Waves (1974)