Ranking Bob Dylan’s 33 Studio Albums: No. 8 — ‘John Wesley Harding’

August 30th, 2012

By Bill Spurge

Last year, I decided to complete my collection of Bob Dylan albums. I was a few albums and some odds and ends short, so I bought most and swapped items with a co-worker and fellow Dylan fanatic.

Then, in honor of the 50th anniversary of his first album, 1962’s Bob Dylan, I set out to rank every Dylan album and song. A monumental task, indeed. I listened to album after album, four or five times through. Even albums I knew in my sleep were placed under scrutiny.

Then came the hardest part: making the list. The albums came easier. The songs, not so easy.

My song list is coming soon. In the meantime, here’s my album-by-album ranking of Dylan’s 33 studio LPs (NOTE: Dylan has actually released 34 studio albums, but I’ve chosen not to include 2009’s Christmas In the Heart.)

These 33 album-ranking stories will take us right up to the release of Tempest, Dylan’s new album, which is scheduled to come out September 11. Enjoy!

No. 8 of 33: John Wesley Harding (1968)

In general, you never know what you’re going to get with “the next Dylan album.” There’s no greater example than this album, which follows the stunning power of the three albums before it, a trilogy of masterpieces culminating with Blonde On Blonde. Starting around 1966, music was getting bolder, louder and more experimental. Dylan was a part of that.

And while others forged ahead in that realm, Dylan took a sharp and dramatic turn to a more simplistic approach, not striving for “the next big single.” He had the motorcycle accident after his ’66 tour, and he retreated. It would have been easy to say, “I’ve got to do something big to show I’m still relevant.” What he created instead was a bunch of inspiring, melodic and analysis-inducing songs. While other artists were writing songs about sex, drugs and the hustle and bustle of life, or looking to Vietnam to write the latest war song, Dylan backed into the wilderness in search of his soul. Away from touring and heavy drugs, Dylan looked within himself and wrote songs that were introspective and/or about the life and journeys of others, real or imagined.

This is Dylan NOT writing 10- to 12-minute opuses or stream-of-consciousness thoughts. This is an album full of “Here’s the story in a few verses, here’s some simplistic, yet purposeful playing, and that’s it.” The song “John Wesley Harding” gives you insight into the format of the rest of the production. It features very simple story-telling about an outlaw (John Wesley Hardin), and it’s very easy on the ears. It’s folksy. It’s country. It’s a ballad.

“Down Along The Cove” is a wonderful, keyboard-driven, country-style number that gives a preview of his next detour, the Nashville Skyline LP. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” is a nice number that also previews the next LP. It’s a sex-driven song, sung in that slow, laid-back, campfire style. But it’s amusing, as he says, “Bring that bottle over here” (and yourself too, baby!). (In contrast, there’s some religious references in a number of the songs.)

Tracks 4, 5 and 6 are about as good as three songs strung together can be. The first is “All Along The Watchtower.” We all know how great Jimi Hendrix’s version is. But forgotten in all this is Dylan’s original. This is a song with a driven purpose, and it’s sung and played wonderfully. Who else could have written this?

After “Watchtower” is the mysterious story of “The Ballad of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest.” (Yes, the band name comes from the song). Temptation leads to bad things and, as the last, great line states, “Don’t go mistaking paradise for that home across the road.” It’s a great story, no matter what it means, if only because I love the simplicity of the melody along with the complexity of the lyrics, and because I love the revolving four-chord melody with that wonderful D minor chord turning this into a sad story. Next is “Drifter’s Escape,” which includes an excellent acoustic and harmonica sound and solid drumming.

What I noticed about this LP is that although it’s a more “mellow” LP, the guitars have more of an edge to them than Dylan’s early folk work. “Watchtower” is an example. And there’s some pedal-steel playing that you would see in abundance on Nashville Skyline.

This LP reached No. 2 on the U.S. charts and has been well-received by critics. It shouldn’t be left out of your collection.

Journalist Bill Spurge of New York City has been a Bob Dylan fan since 1974.