Sunday, February 19, 2012

Dylan slows things down with "Harding"

Following three electric, eccentric, frantic and essential albums comes this record, which makes almost as much impact by making LESS noise.

With "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde" in succession, Dylan was on top of the rock world. His arrangements were electric, and he'd attained that "thin, wild mercury sound" that he'd been seeking.

After touring constantly, pushing his muse to the brink and taking more drugs than most people could stand, Dylan was frazzled (and rightfully so). Then there came the motorcycle accident (or, at least a story of a motorcycle accident) that brought the whole frenzy to an end.

What came next was basically an acoustic album that was more spiritual and introspective: "John Wesley Harding."

Gone were the songs of leopard-skin pillbox hats. The speed-induced, sleep-deprived rush of colors and images spat relentlessly were replaced with laid-back, pared-down arrangements and mellow, direct vocals.

But this was by no means a poorer creation for all of that.

Dylan's eighth album, in fact, is fairly reminiscent of his first two or three records. The songs are certainly more "message" related than those featured on the last few albums, though politics and human rights take the back seat while more Biblical references are featured.

The period of late 1967 and early 1968 was a pretty productive time for Dylan. While recuperating from his accident (or escaping from the pressures and expectations of his fame), he joined up with a group of musicians (The Band) and woodshedded some material.

Some songs were honed, some songs were thrown out once and dismissed afterward. Some songs became classics (for The Band or for other artists), some songs were just fun. Through it all, Dylan learned to enjoy the process of writing songs and making music that didn't necessarily rely on the surreal or wordplay. Story songs, characters, Biblical verse and tongue-in-cheek assessments of modern society proved popular grist.

The material the group put together wasn't officially released at the time (some of the music would be released later in 1975 as "The Basement Tapes," and some of it provided the bulk of one of the first major bootlegs: "Great White Wonder").

Renewed and relaxed, Dylan turned his attention to a new set of songs that would become "John Wesley Harding."

"All Along the Watchtower" is the lynch pin of the album, and became one of Dylan's classics that would be covered by countless artists (most notably by Jimi Hendrix). In fact, so impressed by the Jimi Hendrix arrangement of "Watchtower," Dylan took to performing the song live patterned on the Hendrix version. One artist impresses another artist, who in turn impresses the original artist? You know that's good material.

"I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine," "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," "Dear Landlord" and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" are all minor masterpieces, and carry the slightest of country tinges (providing foreshadowing of what was to come on the next album, "Nashville Skyline"). "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" might be the second most covered song on the album, in fact, with versions being recorded from such artists as Norah Jones, The Hollies, Bobby Darin, Linda Ronstadt and many others.

If you are looking for another "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" or "Like a Rolling Stone," you won't find them here. Rather, you'll find "As I Went Out One Morning" and find a mixture of American myth and history and allegory (and more than just a nod to Tom Paine ... Thomas Paine, one of the founding fathers).

With this material, Dylan forgoes much of his "sneering" vocal style. It isn't as nasal, as he sets aside his Woody Guthrie "okie" style and his full-force shouting to adopt a more intimate delivery. He lilts, he swoops, he sings. He invests color and mood to his deliveries (again, foreshadowing what would be coming in "Nashville Skyline"). One need only hear "Dear Landlord" and it's easy to picture the song being delivered by a crooner or a smooth-voiced singer of renown, as Dylan's vocals emulate that type while remaining distinctly Dylan at the same time.

There's no acid-drenched freakout here. You won't get an amphetamine-fueled diatribe. But what you WILL find is a body of enduring songs that is well-worth owning. It's a great 3 a.m. album. Give it a listen; you'll see.

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