Highway 61 Revisited
REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/10/2008
A glaring, defiant Bob Dylan stares at the listener from the front cover, daring those who booed him at Newport for going electric. He doesn't care; you take his music his way or you go listen to something else.
Highway 61 Revisited is a marked break from the folk past; Dylan has come into his own now, no longer a Woody Guthrie disciple, and a truly original artist. It is perhaps his best single album statement, topped only by Blood on the Tracks a decade later.
Here, he pursues a different vibe. Very little music at the time sounded like "Like A Rolling Stone," the loose kiss-off anthem driven by Al Kooper's organ work. It swirls by in a cool haze, and it's not even the best song here; that honor goes to the garage rock stomp of "Tombstone Blues," Dylan's words barely keeping pace with the rapid guitar. It's the fastest six minutes on any of his records.
As usual, the words are fairly incomprehensible; if anyone can figure out a meaning from a Dylan song, it's because they really wanted to, not because he had a meaning. The liner notes even say as much: "...the songs on this specific record are not so much songs but rather exercises in tonal breath control. The subject matter -- though meaningless as it is -- has something to do with the beautiful strangers, Vivaldi's green jacket and the holy slow train." So there.
The piano-led "Ballad of a Thin Man" is a sneering put-down of a journalist, a square and/or a parent; it's where the famous "Something is happening here and you don't know what it is / Do you, Mr. Jones?" The descending piano riff carries the song to the depths; it's an appropriate way to close the first side of the record.
The fun stomp of the title track is a highlight, and not just for the Biblical allusions, while "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" is a dry run for the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, though Dylan's attitude is far more laid back and sinister. "Queen Jane Approximately" and "From a Buick 6" are solid, if derivative of better Dylan.
"Desolation Row" ties all the previous threads together in an 11-minute closer that is just this side of hypnotic; with only an acoustic guitar and his voice, for the most part, Dylan manages to create imagery like the best poets before him (even name-dropping Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, fighting in a castle).
There is little in the way of commercial appeal here, which is part of the charm; many of the songs don't have a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, but rather one phrase that is repeated several times with different lyrics.
To truly understand Dylan beyond the handful of radio staples, this is where to start. Highway 61 Revisited ends up being one of the most rewarding and necessary discs of Dylan's career.