So much has already been said about the works of Bob Dylan that it’s difficult not to lose myself in the complex lores accompanying each record. This is one of the greatest personal joys that comes with consuming beautiful music — obsessing over liner notes, desperately scrambling for information and conclusions — but it can be a curse to those who are looking for an entry-point. As I approach the record at face value, and step away from the folklore, it becomes abundantly clear how important Highway 61 Revisited is.
Much has been said about Dylan’s distinctive vocal tone. One thing is certain: there’s an extraordinary amount of charisma behind his voice. The world has seen thousands of superior singers, but not many carry the same weight and power that Dylan has, or at least had. “Ballad of a Thin Man” is captivating, and not many songwriters can pull off a track like “Desolation Row”. The narratives are enchanting, and he has you hooked on every word. I am always aware of the 11-minute running time of the closing track, but this is likely because I’m somewhat spoilt as a modern listener, and not exactly accustomed to the practice of tuning in to story-driven tales of such epic length.
Highway 61 Revisited’s claws are still firmly gripped on modern music. Its influence is astounding. “Tombstone Blues” has the frenetic swagger that I had wrongly assumed arrived with the punk movement in the ‘70s. It’s a belting rock and roll song performed at an exhilarating tempo, and if I was being fussy I’d ask for a few more songs cut from the same cloth. Unfortunately, I do find the record to be slightly front-loaded. Side one is masterful, and side two doesn’t quite sustain that prowess. It just feels slightly less important. I’m not exactly sure why, though it’s likely due to “Ballad of a Thin Man” being a near-impossible number to follow.
Nonetheless, the power of Highway 61 Revisited is unmatched, and it remains a key landmark of the ‘60s that we will be listening to for decades to come.
8 out of 10
Bob Dylan has a gift for making you feel like you’re sharing in a dark, beautiful secret in the same breath that he’s telling you to go take a hike. He has no shortage of seminal works, but Highway 61 Revisited is probably the finest meeting of his anger and his clarity. The record is almost everything it’s cracked up to be, and that amounts to something pretty special — especially where side one is concerned.
The no bullshit drum intro to “Like a Rolling Stone” is classic Dylan, smashing the door in with a straight-to-business thud, and the record continues in kind. The opener’s a masterpiece. Not much I can add there. The guitar motif on “Tombstone Blues” is perfect. Thank god he went electric. The instrumentals are given some space to breathe between there and “Ballad of a Thin Man”, which is absolutely ghastly. I love it. Side one of Highway 61 Revisited is as good as it gets, frankly. Epiphanic and livid in equal measure, it’s like being bludgeoned with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare by the man himself. Marvellous.
Side two doesn’t quite sustain that level, at times bordering even on pedestrian, but in the context of the album that works rather well. After the onslaught of the first 20 minutes, it’s nice to have some time to nurse one’s wounds. You get to “Desolation Row” which strips things back and plays the record off and it all winds up being a bit of a Journey. Bob Johnston’s production enables the sense of intimacy the music deserves; the sound is raucous, but always sat just behind Dylan. He speaks and the band shakes. It really is quite an exquisite balance.
You can hear the record's age, but the record isn’t old. Like Dylan himself, there’s something mythical about it, its plane high above any one time or place. He sings and we listen, the instrumentation hanging on his every word along with the rest of us. It’s one of those things that reassures you with how expressive and beautiful people are capable of being. (Or at least that Bob’s capable of being, and we of understanding.) One for the ages, and an endless pleasure.
9 out of 10
Highway 61 Revisited manages to do a lot with seemingly little. At first glance, Bob Dylan uses simple chord structures, down to earth vocals and story-driven lyrics which puts him alongside an overwhelming sea of other artists. But what sets this album apart from a majority of other albums is the sheer character and hidden intricacy of the whole tracklist.
Front-loaded with a stonking opening combination, “Like a Rolling Stone” hollers and quivers out during its chorus, and instantly grabs the listeners attention with its memorable hook and some wonderful instrumentation across the board. “Tombstone Blues” is quite the opposite, cantering along for six minutes. Folksy without being twee, and poignant without being preachy, this is a track with substance that you can still have a lot of fun with. Songs like “Ballad of a Thin Man” and the title track of the album have similarly little for me to complain about, with more to enjoy each time I return. The former drapes a moody, smoky atmosphere across the mid-section of the album, while the latter spins and whirrs along the titular highway.
The few tracks that are less memorable are more than made up for by the rest, and where I initially felt as though all the best material was up front on side one, further listens have warmed me to the second side. I feel as though this is an album I want to start each Sunday with, with its laid-back tone lasting throughout its near hour play time. It’s been a pleasure to listen to Dylan’s characterful vocals and memorable hooks, and Highway 61 Revisited will certainly be going into my favourites list.
9 out of 10