The title of the album is thought to derive from the novel Farn Mabul by Yiddish writer Sholem Asch; Dylan had a personal relationship with Moses Asch, son of Sholem and founder of Folkways Records, a record label hugely influential in the folk music revival. Another theory is that the title refers to the album arriving before the inevitable flood of bootlegs could saturate the underground market.
While Dylan and The Band had recorded the studio album Planet Waves prior to the tour, few of its songs were incorporated into the tour's setlist, and none are represented on Before the Flood. After the double album release, Dylan signed a new contract with Columbia Records in time for his next studio album, Blood on the Tracks, after returning label president Goddard Lieberson made a determined campaign to get Dylan back from Asylum. The Band continued to record on their own for Capitol Records.
In a contemporary review for Creem magazine, music critic Robert Christgau felt that the Band followed Dylan in intensifying his old songs for the arena venue and stated, "Without qualification, this is the craziest and strongest rock and roll ever recorded. All analogous live albums fall flat." In a less enthusiastic review, Rolling Stone magazine's Tom Nolan said Dylan's vocal emphasis and the Band's busy arrangements make for an awkward listen, although revamped versions of songs such as "It's All Right, Ma", "Like a Rolling Stone", and "All Along the Watchtower" are successful and sound meaningful.Before the Flood was voted the sixth best album of 1974 in The Village Voice 's annual Pazz & Jop critics poll. Christgau, the poll's creator, ranked it second on his own list.
In a retrospective review, Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune called the album "epochal", while AllMusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine described it as "one of the best live albums of its time. Ever, maybe."Greil Marcus commented, "Roaring with resentment and happiness, the music touched rock and roll at its limits." By contrast, Dylan himself later disparaged the tour, feeling that it was overblown. "I think I was just playing a role on that tour, I was playing Bob Dylan and The Band were playing The Band. It was all sort of mindless. The only thing people talked about was energy this, energy that. The highest compliments were things like, 'Wow, lotta energy, man.' It had become absurd." In a retrospective review, Scott Hreha of PopMatters also felt that each act did not sound collaborative as on The Basement Tapes and that the album "remains a worthy but inessential item in Dylan's catalog—and both he and the Band have better live recordings available, especially the several volumes in Dylan's Bootleg Series."
Sides one and four are performances by Bob Dylan backed by The Band; side two and tracks four through six on side three are by The Band; tracks one through three on side three by Dylan alone. "Blowin' in the Wind" is a splice of two separate performances. All dates from Los Angeles except as indicated. All songs written by Bob Dylan, except where noted.