It’s 1967. Half-a-million U.S. soldiers are fighting in Vietnam. On the heels of your world-beating single “Like a Rolling Stone,” which you follow with the stellar album Blonde on Blonde and seal your legacy as the world’s preeminent folk-rock songwriter, you crash your motorcycle and subsequently retreat from the spotlight. Meanwhile the hippie scene takes off in San Francisco, spawning a wave of psychedelic acts that praise your own surrealist lyrics as part of their charge to disrupt the status-quo and open new doors of reality. Having recovered from your accident, what’s your next move?
If you’re Bob Dylan, you put out John Wesley Harding, a folksy, mellow album packed with fables and morals, archaic syntax and characters divorced from modernity altogether. The elaborate soundscapes have given way to spare acoustic instrumentation. The wry, hallucinatory gusts of alliterative verses and dreamlike glimpses of storyline have laid down before spare, coy storytelling. The title character is a “friend to the poor” who “travelled with a gun / in every hand.” Townsfolk attempt to level charges against John Wesley Harding, but because of his kind reputation, none of them stick. Even so, Dylan refrains from saying anything too specific.
Another historical figure, Tom Paine, appears in “As I Went Out One Morning.” The speaker here encounters a girl who offers to run away with him until “Tom Paine himself / Came running from across the field,” dissolving the hazy situation.
These songs, in their allegorical natures, bring to mind Dylan reclined and daydreaming his way through a folk-bound history, then sitting up and trying to recount his reveries with some semblance of coherence. The language, torn from these historical realms, often feels old-fashioned, biblical, stiff. The third verse in “As I Went Out One Morning” goes,
‘Depart from me this moment’
I told her with my voice
Said she, ‘But I don’t wish to’
Said I, ‘But you have no choice’
Each line here seems three removes from contemporary. Whereas Dylan cried, “get out of here!” two albums earlier on “Desolation Row,” we now have “depart from me.” In the next line, when the speaker tells her “with his voice,” I wonder, as opposed to what? His ears? And for the last two lines, why not, “She said, ‘I don’t wanna’ / I said, ‘You got no choice'”? The latter feels imminently more natural, less wooden.
In “All Along the Watchtower,” the language again seems affected, Elizabethan. “The wildcat did growl / two riders were approaching / the wind began to howl.” So a wildcat growled, two riders approached, and the wind howled. One could argue streamlining the language of these phrases strips the album’s voice of its grand sense of poetry and history, but I disagree. Maintaining the archaic syntax only makes it odd to our ears.
And then the morals start pouring in. “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” concludes with a lesson and an instruction. The first, “one should never be / Where one does not belong.” The second, “don’t go mistaking Paradise / for that home across the road.” These wisdoms approaching proverbs lack real substance, forgo actual meaning. When will I know I’m not where I belong? And how might I distinguish Paradise from a neighbor’s home? Vacant of useful insight, these lines become bromides dragging the stories down.
I get that close analysis of lyrics is unfair, because lyrics and the music they accompany—not to mention the performer and the context within which they’re performed—all braid together as a unified entity (a song). But when delineating greatness, I look for excellence on every level. Lyrical weakness is a real weakness. Dylan doesn’t get a pass because he’s our supposed rock-and-roll bard.
Two nights ago Al Kooper sent me another message. In it, he said, “I think [Bob Dylan] is the musical equivalent of Shakespeare.” Kooper might be right. History might shine on Dylan so fondly; Dylan’s oeuvre has a better chance of standing up to centuries of critical scrutiny than maybe any other contemporary pop-music artist. But even Shakespeare had his duds. It’s no sin to say it.
Dylan’s return to his roots here lacks the political firepower he once possessed. But he’s still moving forward. “All Along the Watchtower” would become an acidified counter-culture anthem after all. Do I get “John Wesley Harding”? On some levels yes, on some levels, maybe not. Do I need to listen to the previous albums to get it? I just want to know why he chose such vague stories and archaic language. Do I like it? It’s not his best.