Sunday, January 27, 2013

Bob Dylan - John Wesley Harding (1967)

Why John Wesley Harding? Why do I consider Bob Dylan's 1967 album his greatest LP ever?
Bob Dylan had already made some of the most groundbreaking albums in rock when John Wesley Harding was released in the final week of 1967. His lyrics on Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde were surreal interpretations of contemporary America, set to music that proved to be a sonically Cubist jumble of electric guitars, organs, and his own harmonica. His style was bold and expressive, and it made Dylan an icon. But after a dreadful motorcycle crash in 1966 that left him incapacitated for awhile, Dylan began to look inward, sketching out personal and topical songs of inner reflection. The quiet nature of John Wesley Harding, particularly coming on the heels of rock's psychedelic phase at the time of its release, was as shocking to listeners as the gate rattling of Blonde on Blonde had been nearly two years earlier.
The music on John Wesley Harding is simple enough - low-key arrangements of acoustic guitar or piano with a subtle rhythm section of bass and drums all the way through, occasionally augmented by Nashville legend Pete Drake's steel guitar. The lyrics of its twelve songs are as surreal as those of earlier Dylan songs but are more intimate and insular, as well as more conventionally metered. Many of the characters and first-person narrators here are alone, lost in their own thoughts or their own worlds. There is a religious aspect to many of the songs here, with its characters seeking guidance in the divine. The title track romanticizes the outlaw John Wesley Hardin (Dylan added the "g" to the surname) as a crusader for justice and the poor who never hurts honest men, while "Drifter's Escape" imagines a court defendant charged with an unspecified crime who's aided and abetted by fate in escaping from a sham trial. In both songs the pace of the music is noticeably quicker, and it especially crackles with intensity in the latter tune. In the slower "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine," Dylan dreams he's among the multitude that puts St. Augustine, who is trying to redeem lost souls, to death; the experience causes him to wake up in self-doubt, anger and fear.
Most of the vignettes on John Wesley Harding in which Dylan's characters deal not only with their own isolation but also the smallness of their place in the world. "Dear Landlord" is an almost dirge-like confrontation of authority, Dylan's pleas backed by a somber piano. Fallen souls are either self-scorning ("I Am a Lonesome Hobo") or felt sorry for ("I Pity The Poor Immigrant"). The album's greatest cut, "All Along The Watchtower" (magnificently expanded upon in Jimi Hendrix's cover) is a restless song finding two outcasts realizing their own self-worth more acutely than the plowmen and princes who exploit them. Many of Dylan's characters are left more unfulfilled in the end; "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" finds Frankie Lee consumed by his own desires. However, the answer to the age-old question of finding oneself is provided in the final two cuts - a pair of deceptively simple love songs, "Down Along the Cove" and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," which celebrate nothing more than the pleasure in loving someone. These are the only two songs on John Wesley Harding with Drake's steel guitar, suggesting a soft, reassuring transition from the morality plays that precede them. It was the same transition Dylan made when he left his past incantation as a rock and roll sage behind him to find the uncomplicated pleasures of home and family in his own life.

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