Comprised of a smattering of new music and selected singles and outtakes, Islands was never intended to be a canonical album by the Band. They were simply trying to finish off a contract for Capitol Records, so that the long-gestating The Last Waltz could be released on Warner Bros. Back then, the story was that the Band was simply retiring from the road, not from music making.
In that way, Islands should have been directly compared with compilations like Traffic’s Last Exit or the Who’s Odds and Sods. Still, not only had the Band set a standard of long-playing excellence, they were coming off a turnaround studio effort in Northern Lights-Southern Cross that seemed to point in a new creative direction.
Plainly, it didn’t — leaving the aptly named Islands to stand as a crooked and unkempt tombstone for the Band’s original incarnation. As such, the project has taken its share of critical drubbings over the years, from disappointed critics and fans alike. But, it’s not without its smaller, more dilated charms, and the set-closing “Livin’ in the Dream” is certainly one of them.
This lightly grooved, calliope-paced aside plays to Levon Helm’s many strengths, from its impish cadence to its scamp’s checklist of big dreams and even bigger flirts. In that way, “Livin’ in a Dream” reaffirms much of what made the Band so reliably involving, even if it never quite succeeds in making you forget those earlier triumphs. There’s Rick Danko’s keening background vocals, Garth Hudson’s carnival of musical delights (including the trusty Lowrey, but also a hootenanny accordion then a boldly redemptive alto) and Robbie Robertson’s sly curlicue riffs. Taken apart from history, they couldn’t sound less like components for the desperately sad finale that this came to be.
But, it is, of course — and that can’t help but color how we hear all of it. A sense of dark-hued, end-of-summer finality envelops everything about Islands in general — and “Livin’ in a Dream” in particular, until the very title itself feels bitterly ironic. Then there’s the happy-go-lucky whistle that closes out this song. Knowing what we know now, it may be one of the most desperately lonesome sounds the Band ever put to tape.
Solo albums would, of course, follow for both Danko and then Helm later in 1977. But something is lost forever, as the last song on the last studio album by the five-man edition of the Band comes to a close. If, in fact, we’d been living in a dream, that dream was over.