One of Dylan's most revealing albums, JOHN WESLEY HARDING, as most of Dylan's albums, are more fully appreciated when taken in context of the time period in which it was recorded and its relationship to Dylan's other LPs.
To give a brief history recap, psychedelic songs were the major movement going on at the time. Dylan himself had been covering some wild material on his electric trilogy, creating some of the most memorable excursions into surreal territory that rock has ever produced. Bob Dylan was leading everybody else into a bold new place artistically. Then something happened.
To put it accurately, a motorcycle accident happened.
And something else happened.
Dylan, who had such a prominent place in this movement, was suddenly gone. No one really knew what happened. Dylan holed himself up with The Band at Big Pink and began jamming daily, forging the now legendary Basement Tape sessions, of which the majority still remains unreleased. Yet officially no word came from the Dylan camp, save in the form of a very skimpy "Greatest Hits" collection.
Then, Dec 27, 1967, this album quietly went out into the stores. Following BLONDE ON BLONDE, this album blew most people out of the water. Not only did Dylan not issue a psychedelic album, he issued something that sounded almost like country. Even the evil Rolling Stones did psychedelic material in 1967, and The Beatles, with their epochal SGT. PEPPER release, became the spokespersons for that has been termed as the "Summer of Love," although personally I think that is people mythologising that era.
The album itself? Dylan once again proved no one could touch him in the 1960s. Dylan creates a masterpiece based in rural folklore and a stunning cast of characters who become ineligibly imprinted in your mind. This album is so far away from 1967 it seems unreal, and would prove to be quite a shock for listeners following Dylan's every move. The music has a country flavour, but make no mistake: this is not country music. What this music is, I can't really say, as nothing has really even come close to it. JOHN WESLEY HARDING became an important album in the country rock revolution, and that is perhaps the best way to describe it. However, to only call it Country Rock would be a disservice to this spectacular album. NASHVILLE SKYLINE is straight country and no mistake. This, however, is Dylan taking the atmosphere of the 19th century and recasting it in musical form. On no other album has Dylan, or anyone that I know of, so successfully captured an entirely "otherness" atmosphere that roots itself in the past so successfully that you would actually think it is an artifact of that which its music is about. This album transports you back into the 19th century.
As for the music in relation to the lyrics, this is the single most successful marriage of Dylan's lyrics and Dylan's music on any album. The sheer density of the lyrics and the woefully understated music helps us get into the universe Dylan is spinning around us in ways that other music could not. The lyrics and the music play off one another in ways no other album I've heard has, let alone a Dylan album. Because of this successful merger, the atmosphere becomes in sync and everything clicks.
As a result, the sum becomes greater than its parts. Taken out of historical context, this album loses much of its import. If you approach it just as music, then this sounds like it should come from a long ago past. If you approach it without understanding Dylan's history or what was happening at the time, you lose much of the historical importance of this LP. Dylan's back to the basics in instruments predates both The Stones' and The Beatles' return to less psychedelic music. If you take it as just a collection of music, the atmosphere that Dylan cultivates on this record loses its steam and becomes just another album. But if you fully enter into it, you discover that this record has single-handedly created its own genre of which it is the only example (that I know of). You have to take this album as a complete musical piece.
Bottom line: one of rock's most mysterious albums, taking you to an entire other era that no one in living memory can begin to describe. You'll never find another album like it, as I fear there's too much distance between us and that time and musically this culture is devolving instead of evolving.
P. S. Taken alone, I think "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," and "All Along the Watchtower," two songs I always think of as companion texts, are covered better elsewhere. In the past I even felt that even though Dylan penned it, Hendrix made "All Along the Watchtower" a Hendrix song. Taken side by side, I still prefer Hendrix's. Taken in the context of the album, however, "All Along the Watchtower," is just as important as the rest of this collection because it adds to that dark, ragged, rough-n-tumble atmosphere Dylan is creating.
P. P. S. My personal favorite is "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," which is the longest track here. Another fact to note is this album started a trend that bottomed out on NASHVILLE SKYLINE and would only be abandoned at BLOOD ON THE TRACKS. Dylan's LPs, previously running about 50 minutes, would scale back to 35 to 39 minutes and would even go down to 27 minutes with NASHVILLE. The one exception during this period is the notorious SELF-PORTRAIT, but Dylan has a reason for that.