Starting on March 22, 1965, Bob Dylan released, it the span of 14 months, perhaps the three greatest rock n’ roll albums of all time. The triad output of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde had immediate enormity; proving that the young star of American folk could handle an electric plug-in and play blues-infused music just as well as he could with the spectres of Americana.
There’s no span of music that I know of with such offered genius in as short of a time span as this that I know of—and really only a few contenders that would even qualify.
For years, it was Dylan’s early folk that I clung to (the ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ tracks), but his electric albums that assured me that my idol is an undeniable genius. Blood On The Tracks (my favorite album) came a decade later to confirm that the artist, though choosing to do different experiments, still had capacity where one might have conjured doubt.
However, there were always gaps in Dylan’s discography for me. Sure, I know Planet Waves and a few tracks. I know I’m supposed to like Nashville Skyline, though I can’t get over its silly cover art. And then there’s John Wesley Harding. Dylan’s follow-up to the three electric albums up above.
JWH is Dylan’s biblical genesis, it’s said. It’s a return to roots, others suggest. A short and tidy album the master made while cooped up after his motorcycle accident. His thoughts on death and legacy after the same event.
All makes for good backstory. All etched in the gospel of the prophet Bob Dylan.
What I knew of JWH was that it was a short(er) record. It had ‘All Along the Watchtower’. It was simply written—explicated by Dylan himself as lyrics in which he chose not to waste any words.
I listened to the album in full a few years ago. My reaction was mixed. Songs didn’t stand out. It felt not just as a return to the folk Dylan, but an experiment in simplicity that denied the hero his platform. It felt bare at a time when I craved Dylan.
And then I bought the vinyl.
And everything changed.
Let me say this now: John Wesley Harding is, should be, can be, will be (?) the archetypical album which anoints the difference in listening to vinyl as opposed to an mp3.
I realize that’s controversial and the classic rock fans can have their picks for that constructed category, but it’s my winner there.
John Wesley Harding needs crackle. It needs to spin, not just play. It needs to live in what is now an antiquated platform because it’s stories are too antiquated. It’s an album of the past; of fictional people in their fictional caves, castles, or caskets.
And it’s a fucking masterpiece.
Each song is a tale of something; man’s dream of freedom, edenic understanding, etc…Each songs moves you from the beginning to somewhere else at the end, with clear intention and an even clearer bit of focus (which answers to perhaps the only criticism one could levy at 65-66 Dylan).
It’s not a rock and record. It’s not a folk record. It’s a record of dripping genius, not waking you up the way ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ might or ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ does. Its songs are not epic enough to stand next to ‘Desolation Row’ or its like (‘Visions of Johanna’ in there too, obviously).
It’s a record only Bob Dylan gets to make.
But it aches and, again, drips, with its verses. Simplicity is the ultimate strength and it cries with such. The lines keep their rhyme with structure instead of necessity (instead of racing toward it the way ‘Johanna’ does or ‘Stuck Inside…’ does).
“Dear Landlord/please don’t put a price on my soul/my burden is heavy/my dreams are beyond control”
It’s boozy. It doesn’t stand upright. It needs not the pantheon of eternal praise the way some might expect Dylan to put out in the becoming-late 60s. Instead it’s a statement. Of acoustic purpose. Of no specific purpose. Reminding us that genius sometimes sneaks out the back porch and plays you something its been “working on”. And it plays and its profoundly simple. Confoundingly brilliant.
(how does one even put a number on the work of an idol? one does not grade gods). but for some sake I don’t know yet, I’ll give it a 9.4/10