Author's note: Obvious apologies for a lack of updates. If nothing else, I've learned that I probably have no place in a courtroom in a speaking/debating capacity. But I probably already knew that.
If you go back and take a look at the first ever #1 albums for the big-time artists of the 1960s - hell, maybe even the big-time artists of musical history - you are going to find a hell of a lot of really, really famous albums. Meet the Beatles!, Kid A, Electric Ladyland, Led Zeppelin II - we're often talking about records that just about any serious fan of music has heard of, and most casual fans of music have heard of as well. This isn't to say that Billboard chart positions are going to tie into what makes a great album, of course; I would certainly hope that I've made my feelings about that known at some point on this here blog. But what I'd like to think I'm getting at here is that, for the upper echelon of musicians and bands that have made any sort of impact on our musical experience, their first album to reach the toppermost of the poppermost is going to be pretty darn well known.
Which, as you might expect, brings me to Planet Waves. Now, we all know that Dylan has never been and probably never will be the kind of artist that you tend to associate with commercial success. His run in the 1960s, with the benefit of hindsight (WTBOH for short), seemed like a by-product of the times (not that the music isn't absolutely extraordinary, but c'mon - people were talking about how strange "Like A Rolling Stone" sounded being played on WABC BACK THEN), his run in the 1970s (WTBOH) seemed like a weird by-product of the whole nostalgia kick that made Tour '74 such an astonishing box office hit, and his current run of top-selling albums is almost certainly a by-product of his large and long-lasting fanbase simply sweeping him to the top of the charts (one also wonders if his current core audience is the type that tends to keep buying albums in the stores anyway, but that's a discussion for another day). And it seems kind of fitting, then, that the first time Dylan ever brought home a #1 album was both part of that 70s nostalgia (as befitting an album collaborated with The Band, who had surely peaked as a commercial outfit by then but still had that 1966 cache) and an album that has more or less receded into history, even for Dylan fans. It didn't help that Planet Waves basically sank like a stone upon release, selling one-sixth of its total for 1974 after advance sales. For most people, it's something of an afterthought, Dylan testing his brakes before taking off with the mid-70s double shot that reestablished him as an Artist of Note.
I personally find this to be unfair. While I'd probably agree that it's the lesser of the Seventies Trilogy, much like the lesser of the Sixties Trilogy (Bringing It All Back Home), Planet Waves manages to both be a bridge to creative nirvana and a pretty damn good album in its own right, a collection of songs that manages to stand on its own merits. "Forever Young", of course, is probably everybody's favorite here (and rightly so), but any number of tracks stand up with what Dylan did with the rest of his decade - "Something There Is About You", "Going, Going, Gone", and the astoundingly underrated "Tough Mama", one of Dylan's best pure rock songs. In fact, what makes Planet Waves such an anomaly to me is that it's one of the few albums where Dylan's just concentrating on making a straight-up rock album, one that has songs that were MEANT to be played on WABC. I'm sure a lot of that had to do with The Band - and who knows, the realization that he was pumping out quality songs again probably got Bob all fired up to crank out some jams, relatively speaking.
If there IS one way that this album could be seen as a test run for anything, it's (oddly enough) the combination of naked emotional outpouring and carefully concealed storytelling that makes Blood on the Tracks the incredible masterpiece that it is (what, did you think I was going to say it's because of the arrangements?). Dylan hadn't quite reached the same virtuoso level at this point (it would come through his therapy sessions and, yes, from the divorce), but his slow but sure re-acquaintance with his muse (and, yes, his failing marriage) had obviously given him a boost that he had been lacking from the recording of Nashville Skyline up to that point. And there's a great deal of emotion to be found here - "Dirge", obviously, but there's also the slightly mawkish yet remarkably real sentiment of "Wedding Song", the bitterness behind "Going, Going, Gone", and (of course) "Forever Young", a song so good I wish I was Bob's kid simply so that I could say it was written about me. Dylan, by tapping into what made him tick and what was important to him, had gotten back into his groove, and it was only upwards from there.
"On A Night Like This", the opener for Planet Waves, tends to remind me about "To Be Alone With You", a song that I consider to be the actual opener for Nashville Skyline (as the songs that precede it are a lark of an instrumental and a duet with Johnny Cash on a cover of Bob's own tune). For one thing, it's a joy to listen to musically, The Band getting to work whipping up their own brand of good time jamboree fun (in fact, the arrangement gets a little TOO busy at times, but that's part of the fun) and Bob blasting out harmonica at the end with as much abandon as he's ever put into a harmonica solo. If nothing else, you get the feeling right off the bat that this is going to be a different kind of Dylan album, and that we're getting ready for something different yet again. Also, much like "To Be Alone With You", Bob weaves together an enthusiastic ode to spending some quality solo time with the missus in his life, sounding almost giddy in his picture painting of the evening that lies ahead. As something of a trailer for what's to come on the album, both songs work remarkably well.
And, one imagines, a critic of this album could simply dismiss this song as "slight", the same way that people have derided "To Be Alone With You" (and, it should be said, the album that song happens to be on as well) as slight. One can surely see the rationale behind that - after all, there's nothing too particularly exciting about a song that describes two people in a cabin in the woods on a snowy night, getting to know each other better (both in the intellectual and, presumably, the Biblical senses), and we've come to expect so much more from our man Bob, haven't we? This is, after all, the man that wrote all those songs with all those crazy lyrics, the man who expanded the vocabulary that rock songs could actually use, and we're getting stuff like "hold on to me, pretty miss/say you'll never go astray", and so on. And even if you discount the classics Bob had written before, listening to this song might give the impression that Bob banged this sucker out in about 30 minutes, scribbling down some words while waiting for The Band to show up at the studio. We expect better, no?
And, much like the reason I like Nashville Skyline the way that I do, I find myself just shaking my head at the rhetorical argument I just dreamed up one paragraph ago and may not actually exist (though I would bet it has been advanced once or twice). Perhaps it doesn't scan quite as well when you're listening to the album for the very first time, the reason "On A Night Like This" succeeds, both on its own and in the context of Planet Waves, is because it gives us one particular aspect of what it means to be in love, and puts it in exactly the kind of musical spirit that one might reasonably expect. After all, who amongst us (especially the married readers of this blog, I would suggest) hasn't been excited about a night alone with their significant other, away from the kids and from bills and from doing the dishes and laundry and all the other crap that comes with life in these here United States, just you two and a pot of coffee and a crackling fire in the fireplace to keep you company? And if you WERE to write a song, as Bob has, about that kind of experience, wouldn't you want it to be full of unencumbered, simplistic joy, both in the lyrics and in the spirited band (excuse me, Band) accompaniment? I think I would.
In the context of the album, as well, "On A Night Like This" serves a purpose - just one side of the die we call love (poetic, isn't it?). With the vicious tongue-lashing of "Dirge", the marvel and wonder of "Something There Is About You", and the almost overwhelming devotion of "Wedding Song", Dylan gives us many different sides to what it means to be committed emotionally to another human being (even more so than Blood on the Tracks, which trucks in a more resigned form of showing us what love is all about), and "On A Night Like This" captures the more joyful, spontaneous side of that emotion. Not only that, but it's a hell of a lot of fun to listen to as well, which probably explains why it got the honor of pole position on what was considered to be Bob's first real "comeback" album of his career. It may not be "Love Minus Zero/No Limit", but it doesn't have to be, and that's a good thing indeed.