By Tony Attwood
Forget, if you can, Planet Waves as an album, and look at this collection of songs composed in 1973 in the order they were written. Once you have, I think you may well find the critics’ views of Planet Waves completely at variance with what you have heard.
Indeed if ever there is a year where the songs Dylan gave the world should be heard in the order they were written, it is this year. If ever a year should be seen as a new beginning it is this year.
Here is what you would get in terms of the order of writing…
- Knocking on heaven’s door
- Never say goodbye
- Nobody cept you
- Going going gone
- Something there is about you
- You Angel You
- On a night like this
- Tough Mama
- Wedding Song
(Just in case you’ve lost your copy, the track order from the album as released on LP format is at the end of this piece).
First I have to say I think this is a knock out set of songs on any account. And when it is remembered that we have just had two years in which Dylan wrote very little, it is an extraordinary outpouring. OK there is no utter masterpiece as along the lines of a handful the songs of Dylan put out in 1963 to 1965, no “Johanna”, no “Desolation Row”, no “Rolling Stone” – but such productivity could never come out of nowhere. A bit of a warm up was needed – and as a warm up for what was to come in the following year, this collection is incredible.
Especially as these songs came after such – a long hiatus, for even the year of the New Morning songs only had a limited number of highly memorable works.
Now take a look at the topics covered – and in this list I know I am simplifying the meanings of the songs for a moment, but I hope you will stay with me on this a moment longer.
- Knocking on heaven’s door – love
- Never say goodbye – love
- Nobody cept you – love
- Going going gone – self confessions, the end of self
- Hazel – love
- Something there is about you – love
- You Angel You – love
- On a night like this – love
- Tough Mama – on being full of life
- Dirge – disdain and self hatred
- Wedding Song – rejection of labelling, setting oneself free
If you have read my reviews of Dylan year by year through the 1960s you might recall that I mentioned how he would jump from writing a song about one of his favourite themes straight into another and another. 1965 took us through songs of farewell, beat poetry as rock, blues, love, disdain, surrealism, political protest… one after the other. And that was what it was like all the way through from 1962 to 1967. Then Bob stopped.
Taking the songs that were recorded by Bob or others, after around 20 songs that should be remembered, each and every year, we got
- 1968: one song
- 1969: eight songs (including the Nashville Skyline songs)
- 1970: thirteen songs (including the New Morning songs)
- 1971: three songs
- 1972: one song and instrumental music for Billy the Kid
Now we get the road back to the old days. Dylan, I think, sets out to write, or perhaps by chance happens to write, a whole series of love songs and then after three songs becomes self-reflective with “Going”. Then back to love, not just the love of a woman but the love of life itself.
Until later, suddenly everything changes and we have two extraordinarily different songs at the end of the year.
The point is that Dylan isn’t yet able to or willing to or wanting to jump from concept to concept, topic to topic, over and over again over and over again, as he did before. But this jumping was at the very heart of his compositional skills. He doesn’t do it through this year but he is finding himself able to do it to some extent as the year of writing comes to a close. He is back to the Bob Dylan that we knew in the early days, before Self Portrait.
Also I would say that if we compare these 11 songs with the quality of songs from 1969 and 1970, the last two years in which he wrote more than a handful of songs, there is no comparison. As works of art these songs really are at a so much higher level than the songs of 1969 and 1970 which although having moments that could readily be seen as the highlight in the writing of most composers of popular songs, really don’t match Dylan’s earlier output.
Of course we’ll all find interesting songs in 1969 and 1970, but these new songs of 1973 really do require a complete focus on where Dylan was going and what he was doing, whereas some of the songs of the 1969/70 vintage really can be appreciated from the first hearing, without any issue of deeper analysis.
That is not to say that songs have to be complex to be good, but the fact is that Dylan made his name by taking popular and folk music into dimensions that the forms had never been used for before. Here he ends by taking us on another journey into previously unexplored arenas.
Thus I do think that analysing this year is of fundamental importance when looking at the progression of Dylan’s art, because of what comes next. And indeed I can’t believe there are many Dylan fans who have studied such matters who do not see 1974 as one of the great highlight moments in Dylan’s compositional life.
My point is that Dylan is unlikely to have been able to produce the monuments of 1974 without the introductory year of 1973 and quite probably he wouldn’t have produced the music of 1973 without having the break we have noted in the years before. This is not to diminish the works of 1973, but rather to say they were great works in themselves which also served as the preparation for Tangled up in Blue and the rest.
Seeing the songs in the order written over these few years shows us a man who had somewhat lost his way as a composer, taking time out, and then deliberately setting out to explore once more where else he could take the musical form in which he worked.
And that is what 1973 is. A year of exploration producing some extraordinarily interesting, beautiful and challenging works, which are of great value in themselves, and which is followed by a year of writing masterpieces once again.
For those of us there at the time who thought “New Morning” was ok, and that it was nice to have another Dylan album, and then wondered if really, that was about it in terms of Dylan the great originator, the great lyricist, the creator of new forms within the genre, the emergence of the Planet Waves songs was a great relief. The master could still turn it on. And the amazing thing is, at the time we just didn’t realise how much he could turn it on, once again.
Planet Waves: how the songs were presented on the album
|1.||“On a Night Like This”|
|2.||“Going, Going, Gone”|
|5.||“Something There Is About You”|
|3.||“You Angel You”|
|4.||“Never Say Goodbye”|
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The Chronology Files
These files put Dylan’s work in the order written. You can link to the files here