Friday, November 8, 2013

A Soulful, Bounding Leap

Today’s formative-album replay: Bob Dylan, John Wesley Harding. Restraint can be as dangerous a temptation for an artist as excess, and simplicity as false an idol as complexity. For every Rubber Soul and Nebraska--signature triumphs of stripped-down, pared-back songcraft by artists accustomed to working on denser canvases--there's a Rattle & Hum or a Sea Change, attempts at back-to-basics, show-your-roots music that only end up showing the seams, the gaps in inspiration or insight. As I wrote when I happily revisited Blonde on Blonde, I feared I'd over-idealized this lean, quiet Dylan masterpiece because of its spareness--that I'd been seduced by its hairshirt purity, that I'd mistaken asceticism for profundity.

I shouldn't have mistrusted my taste so. JWH is a great and singular achievement in a career not short on greatness or singularity. With its sidelong, almost casual vocal delivery, simply strummed acoustic guitar, frail harmonica, skittering drums, and flinty bass, it sounds like no other Dylan record--and yet in many ways its curiously timeless sonic palette and even-more-ageless lyrics represent the most distilled essence of Dylan. Blood on the Tracks may feature more intimately revealing and cinematic songwriting, while Blonde and Blonde showcases the brilliant effusions of a mad, manic blues Rimbaud. But JWH is the record, if I had to pick one, that most handily seals Dylan’s stature as that anomalous creature, the original folk artist--a writer and composer whose imagination has become indistinguishable from his memory, whose songs sound both like they have no author and that their only possible author could be him.

I think the key to the record's power is that, with the arguable exceptions of “All Along the Watchtower” and “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” every song here is honed down to one subject, one situation, one idea, even just one image (“Down Along the Cove”). The language is as bare and enigmatic as the music is thin. But rather than taking away meaning, feeling, or heft, this restraint creates empty spaces (negative capability, if you want to get fancy) into which harmonies, literal and literary, rush and reverberate, while seemingly simple sentiments--a plea to a landlord, a catalogue of an immigrant’s sins--swell with metaphor and mystery.

Even an ostensible two-chord throwaway like the buoyant “Drifter’s Escape” sounds for all the world like a winking, sidelong Passion Play. That’s the thing about this whole deceptively diffident record: It sounds like it was made in one breath, even a sigh. But, all these years later, its alchemical achievement seems ever more etched in stone.

Previous Dylan replays: The Times They Are A-Changin', Blonde on Blonde.

Jason Benjamin Also worth noting: JWH is an album worth seeking out on vinyl. Aware that Dylan records are mainly cerebral experiences, I for one also love the sound of them. But every digital transfer I've heard of his classics is hideous, JWH especially. The spare, close-miked and home-grown sound was designed for a vinyl groove and it suits these songs marvelously. (Vinyl also accommodates Dylan's chainsaw harmonica approach much more generously than digital.)
Joseph Haj I love how you write. That is all.
Joe Drymala Wait, you don't like Sea Change?
Rob Weinert-Kendt Jason: I used to own pretty much all of Dylan on vinyl. The collection, and the turntable, did not survive the many moves that brought me to NYC, alas. Joseph: Thanks! Joe: No, not as a whole; I like some of it, just as I value some of RATTLE & HUM. I do love MUTATIONS but as a friend of mine put it, it's like Beck decided he was Dan Fogelberg for a record.
Joe Drymala I admit I have weird Beck-taste, since my favorite record is Midnite Vultures.
Rob Weinert-Kendt MIDNITE VULTURES is great...though I'd personally rank them MUTATIONS > ODELAY > MIDNITE VULTURES > MELLOW GOLD.

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