Highway 61 Revisited begins with the crashing and iconic first notes of “Like a Rolling Stone”, a definitive anthem of the 60s and a song Rolling Stone magazine listed as the single greatest track of all time. That’s being a tad overly generous. It’s a great piece of music, yes, but far from Dylan’s best, as it replaces sharp lyrics with catchier ones. Nonetheless, it’s a lively track, and a magnificent album opener.
It transitions into “Tombstone Blues”, another fast-paced song. Dylan’s voice is perhaps at its most boring, but his lyrics are very clever. His songs are written on par with the great poets of his generation. “Tombstone Blues” is evidence of his gift as a songwriter.
Then we move into a softer piece, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”. It’s easier on the ear (a result of Dylan using the best of his voice), and has a far less aggressive tone. The piece is written with sexual imagery and smooth bluesy backing music.
“From a Buick 6” is essentially a continuation of “Tombstone Blues”. It’s another track with a fast tempo, strong lyrics, and a band of rock musicians as opposed to the folk sounds early Dylan fans expected and admired. It’s this shift from straight folk to folk-rock that alienated Dylan’s audience – listeners who believed social commentary couldn’t be incorporated into rock music. These days, such criticisms seem trivial, but at the time, Dylan was largely branded as conformist.
As the harmonica from “From a Buick 6” has faded out, “Ballad of a Thin Man” opens with its familiar and striking opening chords. The song is an underappreciated masterpiece, and certainly the greatest song from Dylan, who, despite writing it, claims to have no understand of what it’s “about”. There are several clear recurring themes, such as hypocrisy or the mood in America during the 60s cultural revolution. Dylan displays a degree of range in his voice, often shifting into a softer tone. And the lyrics are haunting as Dylan tells of the misadventures of one “Mr. Jones”. While certainly a boggling listen, “Ballad of a Thin Man” is Dylan at his most poignant, powerful, and ingenious.
“Queen Jane Approximately” is like an underrated “Like a Rolling Stone”. They share a similar sound and a cautiously optimistic mood. While “Queen Jane Approximately” lacks the catchiness of the album’s first track, there’s an emotional component Dylan succeeds in capturing here that “Like a Rolling Stone” lacks.
Then, a whistling sound notifies us we’ve moved onto the title track, “Highway 61 Revisited”. It’s built on biblical and historic references colliding with aspects of modern society. It’s a well-written song, though it does little to distinguishing itself, making somewhat of an album low point.
Perhaps the gloomiest the albums gets is on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, a melancholy eighth track. Dylan’s voice is strong and meshes with the aforementioned rockish turn.
Then there’s the 11-minute acoustic finale, “Desolation Row”, which is perfect evidence of Dylan’s immense skill as a lyricist. His words interweave figures from history and fictitious (mostly literary) characters into his highly detailed tapestry of loneliness. It’s Dylan in another masterpiece that would’ve satisfied both the fans of “folk Dylan” and “rock Dylan”. It’s a tremendously lyrical and powerful way of ending one of the greatest albums ever recorded.
Bob Dylan is playing the Paramount Theater this weekend. What a time to look at one of his greatest albums "Highway 61 Revisited". Every song seems better than the last. This is the album to put at the top of the Bob Dylan Record Collection. Ask yourself this, "It takes a lot to cry, it takes a train to laugh". Who else could have had a song with that title?
Bob Dylan's second (some would argue first) greatest album. In my Top 10 greatest albums of all time. See my GerryD Lists for other great albums.
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