CK Retro Review: Highway 61 Revisited by Bob DylanPosted: May 24, 2013
Anyone thinking that Bob Dylan was just dabbling in electric music with Bringing It All Back Home in 1965 had another thing coming when he returned, just five months later, with Highway 61 Revisited. It was more bluesy and ballsy then the record that preceded it, shuttering gentle acoustics almost altogether in favor of the raw and the ragged. The constant was Dylan’s continued lyrical brilliance. Here is a song-by-song review.
9. “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”- Dylan hung one of his most enigmatic titles on this one, maybe in an effort to project some kind of significance on it that really isn’t there. It’s mostly just a lot of warmed-over blues lines, but the loping piano of Paul Griffin and Dylan’s woeful harmonica solo get this one by in the end.
8. “From A Buick 6”- A chunky rocker that celebrates a woman who keeps saving the narrator from his various predicaments, “From A Buick 6” may not be the most inspired set of lyrics Bob has ever delivered, but that’s all right, because Highway 61 Revisited was the album on which the music was finally able to do some of the heavy lifting.
7. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”- The dueling pianos of Al Kooper and Paul Griffin dictate the sound for this gentle ramble. It’s the right accompaniment the hard-luck story of Dylan’s narrator, who undergoes all sorts of humiliations and victimizations in Juarez, Mexico at the hands of deviant women and scheming authority figures. At least he makes it back to New York City in one piece, though his nervous system might never be the same.
6. “Queen Jane Approximately”- Much of Highway 61 Revisited is sung with a barely concealed sneer by Dylan, but he delivers an open-hearted vocal of a great melody on this song. It’s also one of the best performances by the outstanding band he recruited for the album, as there are enough often spaces in the mix to let each instrumentalist be heard. In many of his songs, Dylan plays the character in need of saving by the love of a good woman, but he reverses the role here, promising to be the one sure thing in her world of uncertainty.
5. “Ballad Of A Thin Man”- That’s Dylan handling the piano on this song, pounding out those foreboding chords as if he’s trying to penetrate the skull of the unfortunate character who serves as the target for this legendary diatribe. Mr. Jones is the worst kind of poseur in Bob’s eyes, a quasi-respectable member of society who doesn’t have the guts to live the deviant life but still wishes to breathe its fumes. Once Dylan eradicates him with withering putdowns, it’s unlikely he’ll want to stick around. I’m sure any similarities between Mr. Jones and members of the press were purely coincidental. (And by purely coincidental, I mean totally intended.)
4. “Tombstone Blues”- You really can’t blame the sun for being chicken, nor can you castigate the “sweet pretty things” for hitting the sack early, because the world Dylan conjures here isn’t for the meek or mild. It’s ruthless and relentless, traits which are expertly suggested by the driving music with its double-time beat and Mike Bloomfield’s electric guitar flickering in all directions at unsuspecting passersby. Blues characters, Biblical folk, and historical figures all traipse through Dylan’s landscape and get buffeted about by his thrilling poetics. Mama and Daddy might make an appearance in the chorus, but this is by no means your parents blues.
3. “Highway 61 Revisited”- If the crazed slide whistle doesn’t tell you that this isn’t going to be an ordinary track, than the sly title does, as it implies that you’ll be seeing anything but the familiar sights on that legendary blues highway. The ticking drumbeat keeps the tension alive on a song where violence and mayhem abound at every turn. Threatening deities, unmerciful welfare departments, gamblers with bellicose promotions: It’s all fair game on this stretch of road, and wouldn’t you know it that Dylan sounds right at home in the middle of it as the emcee.
2. “Like A Rolling Stone”- It’s importance in rock history is undeniable, and that importance somewhat clouds objective judgment of the song. Many people hear it as an attack, but there are some subtler elements at play, including the narrator’s genuine concern for the girl as well as the curiosity involved in the “How does it feel?” refrain. The music, with Al Kooper’s crazy organ fills and one of Dylan’s all-time vocal performances, creates the catharsis that has made this song such a durable classic-rock and oldies staple. It’s not even the best song on the album, but it might indeed be the greatest rock song ever. I don’t think there’s a contradiction in those two statements.
1. “Desolation Row”- The lyrics are justly celebrated as the quintessence of Dylan’s surrealistic period, but the musical element of the song is just as important to its success. The alchemy between Bob’s acoustic strumming and the inventive guitar commentary of Charlie McCoy creates one of the most hypnotic recordings ever, one that leaves you wanting more even after 11 minutes. Bob once again places bold-faced names in unflattering situations, but the wonder in his vocal casts a romantic glow on the whole sorry lot. I can’t write anymore, ’cause I want to go listen to this thing again now.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)