Tuesday, 25 November 2008

TOP 50 ALBUMS: JOHN WESLEY HARDING

Bob Dylan, 1967


Despite being another reprint from Ye Olde Print Days, this is also part of an occasional series where I eulogize some of my favourite albums. (Or, for younger readers, CDs.) Content may therefore be more celebratory and less analytical than usual. Despite this being the first entry labelled as such, I really started the series here without knowing it.

I‘m currently in the habit of borrowing my flatmate’s CDs to take into work. Thing is, I can only ever fit one in my jacket pocket. Marooned for a day with a single CD, I’ve learnt the wisdom of choosing wisely. But this is an album I’ve always liked which I haven’t heard in a while, so I should be okay.

As it turns out, listening to it again serves to confirm my view that the highpoint of Dylan’s career is either this or Basement Tapes. (Though admittedly you do have to mentally edit out the lesser Band tracks from Basement Tapes.) This was a realization that came over me slowly. I spent many angry teenage years playing the electrified hallucinogenic grotesquery of Highway 61 Revisited as loud as the volume dial would let me, until my Dad would rush in and accuse me of damaging my hearing. Admittedly, the more subdued sound on display here doesn’t generate that instantaneous antagonistic reaction in Dads, but that just obscures its true worth.

I wonder if the switch had a strange disconcerting effect on the rock audience, who had assumed Dylan was now their mascot after plugging in and turning off his original folk followers. The songs from those albums have been the subject of many a rocked-up cover, from Hendrix’s almost instantaneous cover of Watchtower to Patti Smith’s more recent Wicked Messenger - like they wanted to drown out and extinguish the unamped originals.

Though Highway 61 may have marked a step away from the literalism of the original protest songs, this era makes for even more of a sideways leap – into the allusive land of parable. Much of the appeal lies in the way the songs take place inside some mythic past, what Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America”. After the frenetic modernity of Highway 61, John Wesley follows more leisurely trails. Telephones that don’t ring become telegraphs and steamboat whistles, passports become messengers and horsebacked strangers, cars become churches and Napoleon in Rags transforms into St. Augustine.

Alongside the old, weird West we also have the old, weird Victorian England and no shortage of the old, weird Bible either. John Wesley Harding, Tom Paine and St. Augustine all inhabit the same imaginary neighbourhood. Befitting Dylan’s new quietism, all this is assumed rather than paraded, there’s no “long-time-ago-in-galaxy-far-away” style bookends.

(Though of course Dylan’s just foregrounding tendencies he had earlier. Back in ’65 he was already enthusing how folk music was “just based on myth and the Bible and plague and famine and nothing but mystery. Roses growing right up out of people’s hearts and seven years of this and eight years of that and it’s all something that nobody can really touch”.)

The music’s similarly unassuming, a pick-up band of Nashville session men just clock in and do their job. His voice itself is almost unrecognizable from the nasally whine set to wind up Dads, instead it’s deep, gruff and gospelly. He sings distrustingly of the Wicked Messenger “whose mind it multiplied the smallest matter”.

His language is effective through being unassuming, a line like “all across the telegraph his name it did resound” resounds more for its apparent lack of effort. Such simple, direct language is more redolent of folksong than the bogus “these” and “yees” that make most such attempts sound like a bad issue of the Mighty Thor. Writing is about building up a picture gradually through accumulating small and seemingly innocuous words, not painting broad and grandiose flourishes that just flake off in the memory.

But what really makes the album linger in the mind is its beguiling quality. Underneath the simple surface lie pithy parables you never quite get to the bottom of; “nothing was revealed” as he deadpans at the end of Frankie Lee. I was surprised to see so many of these allusion-stuffed songs clocking in on the CD display at under the three-minute mark. Dylan apparently complained at the time that simple was harder to write, but the extra effort was worth it.

There’s a distinction between the gospelly first-person songs which mostly inhabit the second side, which seem to feed from Basement Tapes, and the symbolist character encounters which open and eventually dominate the album. The two final tracks stand out by being as simple and direct as they appear. After the “too much confusion” of all the cryptic allusions, I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight is a song about being your baby tonight. These songs offer the “way out of here” longed for on Watchtower, a redemptive coda to send us home happy and satisfied. But ahead lay Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait where, extended to album length they wouldn’t maintain interest. Dylan dipped and, while he rose again eventually, he’d never recapture what he manages so effortlessly here.

Postscript: When first writing this piece I seem to have somehow overlooked Blonde On Blonde entirely. Not sure why, as between them those four albums are surely Dylan’s most essential.

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