Bob Dylan,
John Wesley Harding
(Sony, 1968)

The release of John Wesley Harding in 1968 marked the return of Bob Dylan from a two-year hiatus following a serious motorcycle crash. It was a momentous return to the spotlight, as this album is arguably one of Dylan's best.

What I find most striking about John Wesley Harding is the fluid, organic nature of the recording as a whole; there are some fine individual songs here, but this is first and foremost a complete album expressing a unified mood and presence that towers above whatever powers lie among its individual constituents. One could say this album offers a softer side of Dylan; there are no hard-edged protest songs here, just quietly philosophical tracks reflecting a calm that belies the tumultuous times in which it was borne.

At times it seems subtly religious in its overtones, and it certainly emanates a message of compassion and brotherhood among men. Among the most notable and familiar tracks are "All Along the Watchtower" and "I'll Be Your Baby, Tonight." The first of these songs would be made famous by Jimi Hendrix, of course, and it is interesting to compare and contrast the two very different versions. I rather enjoy "The Ballad of Frankie Lee & Judas Priest," as it puts me in mind of the Beatles' "Rocky Raccoon" and such driven, story-telling Dylan songs as "Tangled Up in Blue." The other tracks are hard to describe because they all blend in so completely with the music and message of the album as a whole. They cast a sort of musical spell over you, so that finishing the album is akin to waking up from a dream -- the details of what you just felt quickly begin to run together or slip away, but the effect of the experience upon you remains quite strong for some time.

In this day and time, this music may not resonate as powerfully as it did in the late 1960s, but anyone with a love for inspired songwriting and softly powerful vocals should find John Wesley Harding an interesting if not thoroughly enjoyable treat.

by Daniel Jolley
31 December 2005

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