Well, this is the last album in the Dylan mono set that I bought. After John Wesley Harding, Dylan’s albums started being produced solely in stereo. So, anyway, this album feels to me like a bit of a step back, though not a step backwards, if that makes sense. The former indicates a fresh assessment of one’s body of work (and what a body of work Dylan has amassed in just, oh my God, FIVE YEARS; surely the greatest five years of any artist in history); the latter would be a regression. But John Wesley Harding is stripped down, simplified, smaller and quieter than Dylan’s been for a couple of years and these are all, for my money, good things. I frankly think that Dylan had pushed his wall of electric turmoil about as far as he could with Blonde on Blonde; the cracks were already starting to show a bit on that record, in my opinion, and two & a half albums is plenty of time for him to push his electric sound to a wall, at least for a while.
So, here Dylan returns to the style of the folk ballad, but these are miles from Hattie Carroll if you know what I mean. Dylan’s lyrics are simple & concise here, though beautiful and memorable still. His melodies are front and center and the arrangements are stripped down and up-tempo, just a bass and drums (and on two tracks, a beautifully played pedal steel) supporting Dylan. But I think this album is just perfect, refreshing and rejuvenating, probably to Dylan just as much as to me. It’s not as dense and assaultive as Dylan’s last two albums and while those albums certainly work wonderfully, it’s nice to essentially just kick back and relax with Dylan. You kind of feel like you’re just sitting on the front porch with Dylan and his buddies as they regale you with some cool songs they like. Some people might judge some of these songs trifles or trivia; for me, that’s exactly why they work. Dylan’s singing is clear and unforced; the music is melodic and simple; the lyrics remarkable in their simple beauty. It’s yet another move designed, I think, to baffle his biggest fans. After the artistically dense and tumultuous Blonde on Blonde, a song like Down Along the Cove or the title track probably feels like kid’s stuff. But they aren’t; they’re just likable explorations of genre and style and though the lyrical content of many of these songs are rather dark, the album still seems light-hearted and almost effortless. Dylan will go even farther in this direction with Nashville Skyline, but the music here is really perfect in my opinion. It’s certainly not as experimental as Dylan’s last few albums; it’s actually probably his least experimental to this point, excepting his first album and perhaps his third. And it’s certainly quieter and smaller than anything he’s done since Freewheelin’. But it’s undeniably a masterpiece, just one done completely differently from his previous masterpieces; and doesn’t that just sum Dylan up? 4 stars.
tl;dr – Dylan scales things back perfectly to create a quieter, simpler masterpiece of American songwriting; not a trifle, just a new direction. 4 stars.