Stripped-Back, Unobtrusive 1967 Album a Mellow Return to Dylan's Roots and Harbinger of Country Rock
Leave it to Bob Dylan to follow three of the most pioneering electric-based albums in history by again deviating from the norm and straying from expectation. Hinting at a return to his folk roots and firmly pointing toward the field that became country rock, John Wesley Harding breathes with relief and freshness, the sound of an artist re-engaging with the past, forging a future, and stepping into new realms after recovering from an accident and unimaginable pressure.
Recorded around the same time as the sessions that yielded The Basement Tapes, John Wesley Harding came together after just three studio sessions and approximately 12 hours of time. While many specifics are shrouded in mystery, a majority of songs are tied to Biblical figures, ominous matters, and morality themes. Making not just a clear sonic break from his most recent efforts, but a songwriting transformation as well, Dylan embraces a strict economy of scale, dropping beat-poetry techniques in favor of stanzas that waste no words and progress narratives at every turn. It's as if the Bard is saying that truth is spoken here. Few, if any artists, have captured the American myth and its population of immigrants, drifters, and outlaws with such convincing scope and parabolic sagacity.
Combined with the lyrical evolution and unabashed move towards country conventions, Dylan manages to turn popular music on its side, forging a subdued hybrid style no other peers had yet attempted. Arriving during a period of intense experimentalism and psychedelia, John Wesley Harding functions as a sigh of relief, a piano- and pedal steel-flavored set steeped in requisite simplicity in an environment that was increasingly marked by chaos and madness.
Climbing to number two on the Billboard charts and quickly tallying one million in sales, the pared-down work resonated with a public ensnared by its myriad charms. Then, of course, there's the utter brilliance of every one of the songs here, each seemingly occupying a timeless space that suggests they could've been made in 1967, 1937, or 2007. With "All Along the Watchtower," Dylan landed upon a tune that would soon become one of the most-covered and revered tracks in history. And yet it isn't even a standout on an album on which every note just belongs.