Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited is an interesting record. It has been hailed by many as one of the greatest, if not the
greatest album of all time. Likewise, the song “Like a Rolling Stone” is frequently referred to as the greatest song ever recorded. Although Highway 61 was certainly an influential and landmark album, it just isn’t up to snuff with some of Dylan’s other records. This album is by no means bad, but my standards for Bob Dylan are very high. An album that contains four excellent songs and five average songs just doesn’t cut it. By any other artist’s standards this album would be excellent, but it pails in comparison to albums like Blood on the Tracks, Blonde on Blonde, and even Desire.
Highway 61 opens up on an average note with “Like a Rolling Stone.” This song has garnered heaps of praise over the years, and I fail to see why. It’s a good song but almost half of the songs on the album are better. It starts off nicely enough, but after two minutes or so you realize that it’s basically the same thing repeated over and over for six minutes. Granted, a lot of Dylan’s songs are like that, but “Like a Rolling Stone” doesn’t have an interesting enough melody to keep me interested for that long. The lyrics are pretty good, but the rhyme scheme in the chorus wears a little thing (rhyming “home” with itself). The song really is a good representation of the album - overall it’s pretty good but parts of it just fail to impress.
From there, the album certainly is a mixed bag. Songs like “Tombstone Blues” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” are painfully average and neither have any defining moments; they both drag on for way too long. The title track would be infinitely better without the whistle that Dylan added in parts. Basically the issue with the album is that the songs are just so similar, which is the same thing that Bringing It All Back Home suffers from. I don’t think it would be out of line to assume that if “Like a Rolling Stone” was placed on Bringing It All Back Home, then that album would have gotten all the praise that this has. Instrumentally, Highway 61 is nothing special; most songs consist of acoustic guitar chords with clean electric guitar lines to accompany them. The drums are incredibly similar; they’re barely indecipherable from song to song. Obviously the emphasis is on the lyrics; the instruments are there to merely enhance the words, which still shine through on most tracks even though the rest of the album is pretty average.
Aside from the aforementioned tracks, Highway 61 Revisited contains some of Dylan’s finest moments. “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” is a great mellow, bluesy track that has been buried under the popularity of some of the other tracks on here. “Queen Jane Approximately” is my personal favorite song on the album and certainly one of Dylan’s most sorely underrated songs. It's a wonderful upbeat, organ-driven track with great lyrics, and it's a wonder that most people don't know of it. “Ballad of a Thin Man” has an incredibly dark mood about it, containing some of the oddest lyrics on the album. Here is your throat back, thanks for the loan
, and He screams back, ‘You’re a cow. Give me some milk or else go home’
are a few of the standout lines. And of course no Dylan album would be complete with some sort of long epic. “Desolation Row” is eleven and a half minutes of pure genius, surprisingly managing to stay fresh and not get boring. The song is excellent both lyrically and musically, with wonderful acoustic riffing.
As I said in the opening paragraph, this is an interesting album. Even though half the songs are average, I can still listen to every song on the album without any problem. Such is the music of Bob Dylan. Even his average material is still good. It is certainly hard to compare Highway 61 Revisited or any other Dylan album to other artists. Thus, it is easiest to compare Dylan to himself, and while this may not be the best or most accurate method for reviewing or rating an album, it does seem like the only way to do it when talking about Bob Dylan. So as average as a lot of these tracks may seem by Dylan's standards, they're still good by the standards of the rest of the folk community, and the music community in general. This is what keeps me from rating the album any higher or any lower.
My opinion of Highway 61 Revisited has certainly declined over the years. At one time it was my favorite Dylan album, but as I heard more of his records I began to realize how lackluster it really is. Although it contains some of his best songs, the album is brought down by mediocre filler. Still, it is an enjoyable listen every now and then. Songs like “Queen Jane Approximately” and “Desolation Row” are both near the top of my list of best Dylan tracks. Sadly I do not recommend this album very readily; instead, check out Blood on the Tracks or Blonde on Blonde if you’re new to Dylan’s music, then move on to this and other albums.
Recommended Songs: Queen Jane Approximately, Desolation Row, Ballad of a Thin Man