Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

8. John Wesley Harding (1967)

After the wild electricity of the previous three albums, John Wesley Harding initially felt like a bit of a downer on the first listen.  Although like Blonde On Blonde it was recorded in Nashville, here Dylan is accompanied by just Charlie McCoy's bass and Kenny Buttrey's muted drums, plus some pedal steel from Peter Drake on the final two tracks.

With this in mind, it might have made more sense for me to listen to The Basement Tapes first, which contains 24 tracks from his 1967 Woodstock sessions with The Band that yielded over 100 songs. But as this didn't come out officially until 1975 I must abide by the rules of BobBox and listen in strict chronological release order - just eight more albums to go before I get to it!

One of the first things about JWH to strike me was the short length of the songs.  There are no 11-minute epics here; in fact half of the dozen tracks clock in at under three minutes.  Also the language, although featuring many biblical themes and using lots of imagery from American folklore, is very plain and stripped-down compared to that of his previous albums.  This economy of language was a deliberate attempt to not waste any words; Bob is quoted as saying "each line has something", and this resulted in an album of songs that where although the stories seem simple on the surface, you just know there are oceans of meaning lying beneath.

In Drifter's Escape a man is ostensibly saved from a miscarriage of justice and mob rule by lightning striking the courtroom, but there's clearly a heck of a lot more going on besides.  Even though Dylan's language is pared down from the oddly juxtaposed words and complex lyrics of the electric trilogy, we're still, as ever, left wondering what he's really getting at.  As well as the drifter, other outsiders make an appearance, such as the outlaw of the title track; a ballad loosely based on a real American gunfighter, and another drifter in I Am A Lonesome Hobo; a morality tale about greed and envy via the wisdom of a vagrant looking back on his life, wishing he'd known his own mind better.  The  protagonist of The Wicked Messenger is given the cold shoulder as a bringer of unwelcome truth.

The sparse lyrics are matched by the music, which has a quiet, rural nature, accentuating the reflective tone of the songs.  McCoy's buoyant bassline on the unsettling As I Went Out One Morning takes some of the chill off what is quite a foreboding tale, and Dylan's drowsy harmonica on I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine is just wonderful.

Another notable difference is the change in Dylan's singing.  His voice is deeper and fuller, and there are far fewer of the stretched vowels that were so apparent on B.O.B.  That familiar nasal quality remains, but is much reduced.  His "new" voice is at its best during I Pity The Poor Immigrant, where the misdemeanors of the villain [which to me sounds more like a reference to the colonisation of the US in general (building his "town with blood" ) than a particular person or group] are offset by a gentle tune and Dylan's soft vocals.

At just over four minutes long, this latter song is a saga in comparison to much of the album.  The only one longer is The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, which runs to 5.35 minutes and appears to be another morality tale, this time on desire and the grass being greener elsewhere.  I say "appears to be", as I get the feeling Bob is messing with the listener.  The words seem playfully cryptic, especially the "nothing is revealed" from the mouth of the young boy at the end.

Dylan is known to have been reading the Bible a lot during this period of his life; whether he was religiously inclined at this point or whether he just enjoyed the language and storytelling is not for me to say, but it certainly inspired much of JWH.  All Along The Watchtower has references galore, and the lyrics stand out far more over the spare accompaniment than on Hendrix's blistering re-imagining, so that the final verse where,

 "Outside in the distance
  A wildcat did growl
 Two riders were approaching
 The wind began to howl"

is terrifically ominous.

Acoustic guitar is replaced by piano on Dear Landlord, which Bob plays while wearily pleading with someone "Please don't put a price on my soul".  This stylistic change comes as a welcome relief halfway through the album, but isn't the only one.  The final two tracks are very different, featuring Peter Drake's sublime pedal steel and some simple, lighthearted lyrics.  On Down Along The Cove, Dylan sings about his "true love" and his "bundle of joy", clearly about his wife and their new baby, born in the summer of 1967.  I'll Be Your Baby Tonight is just as sweet; a bare bones love song that even UB40 (with Robert Palmer) couldn't ruin in 1990.  This endearing pair of country songs manage to stay the right side of hokey, and make a refreshing end to a fairly serious record. 

As I've worked my way through the box, I've generally liked each new album more than the last. This isn't the case with JWH; although I admire it and am able to appreciate it, I don't enjoy it as much as what's come before.  This could simply be because it comes immediately after the immense Blonde On Blonde, a hard act to follow by any measure.  Also, it had to happen sooner or later, didn't it?  And let's not forget that I've only lived with it for about a week - I'm as sure that JWH will grow on me over time as I am that the BobBox holds many more surprises for me.

Dylan has not yet shown himself to be someone who follows the herd, and in releasing such a low-key album (apparently with little or no promotion) with simple instrumentation and a rootsy, subdued flavour in a year that boasted adventurous musical experimentation from The Beatles, Stones, Moody Blues and many others, he continues to follow his own path.  I can only guess at where that will take him next.

*****BobBox price check***** - £143.64 (free postage)
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All prices correct on 08/04/2015

1 comment:

  1. This is the one that came after his motorcycle accident - I'm guessing that'd go some way to explain the change in voice and outlook.
    Good read as always
    Come on Price Check - dip below the £100 mark (please!).
    I wonder what the chances are of finding it for 20 quid?