John Wesley Harding

Bob Dylan

Columbia, 1967

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Critics have noted that, during a time period when musical groups and artists were submerging themselves in psychedelia and pushing their music to those particular limits, Bob Dylan did something completely against that grain. He released an album that, while not the barest accompaniment he had on his albums, was much more stripped down than his previous two studio efforts. He also cut back on his free-form lyrical approach, choosing instead to limit the words he wrote for this particular batch of songs and making each one count.

The end result, John Wesley Harding, could quite possibly be called Dylan's Nebraska (with all apologies to Bruce Springsteen). It also proves to be one of Dylan's more difficult listens – though the first third of the disc is amazing.

Opening with the title track, Dylan maintains the persona of the storyteller, though he now is more conservative with his lyrics. This actually works in his benefit, as he doesn't cloud the overall vibe of the song with verbose, detailed statements. Here, in both the lyrics and the musical backing, less does prove to be more.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The highlight here, naturally, is “All Along The Watchtower” – though I'm ready to smack the next kid who asks why Dylan is covering a Jimi Hendrix song. Dylan might have considered Hendrix's cover to be the definitive version of the song, but the original is no slouch, either. Again, the sparseness is what really sets this apart from a lot of Dylan's other works. (I know: how can that be, when his first few albums were just Dylan's vocals, guitar and harmonica? In terms of an actual backing band, I mean.)

It is when we get to the pseudo-morality play “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” that things to straight to hell – and not just for any of the characters in the song. This story of… of… screw it, I can't figure out what this story is supposed to be about (nor, do I think, can Dylan – hence the phrase “nothing is revealed” in the lyrics). But sticking to the exact same few chords, repeated ad nauseam, with a story that is more rambling than any of the free-form consciousness stuff Dylan had written prior to this one, all equals a song that weighs this disc down like an albatross made of lead.

Fortunately, John Wesley Harding has enough material to pull it out of this tailspin – though it's a little rough at times. “Drifter's Escape” seems to continue Dylan's fascination with pseudo-morality tales, but

“Dear Landlord” feels like the cure for what suddenly was ailing the album. Whether it was a story about how he was tired of being the voice of a generation or a subtly-veiled attack on then-manager Albert Grossman, it is surprisingly powerful, carrying something hidden in the gentleness of the delivery.

There are enough songs on the remainder of the album to make it worth your while to listen to, such as “I'll Be Your Baby Tonight”, but there are the occasional missteps such as “I Pity The Poor Immigrant,” which just doesn't register with me as being a great song.

If this album did anything, it should have prepared the listener for what was coming in about 18 months on Nashville Skyline – so John Wesley Harding could almost be seen as a “practice run” for the change in style that Dylan was about to lay on his followers. As it sits, it's a complicated album which demands more than just a cursory listen, and despite a few hiccups, proves to be worth the time and effort.

Rating: B-

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