Highway 61 Revisited - Bob Dylan (1965)
Rating: A high 14
"The sun's not yellow, it's chicken!"
Best Song: Desolation Row
Worst Song: From a Buick 6
Shocked, aren't you? Yes, at this point, not giving Highway 61 Revisited a perfect score is practically sacrilegious, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it. It's a great, nay, amazing album, but it just isn't quite good enough to be in my top ten (i.e., a 15). So what keeps it from getting the big 1-5? It's simple -- there's too much filler.
The worst offender here is the rollicking "From a Buick 6". And that's exactly what it is -- rollicking. But sadly, that's about all there is to it. The lyrics are nothing to write home about, and the medley is generally pretty mediocre. Sure, I like Al Koopman's organ lines here, but there are awesome organ lines ALL OVER this album, so that's not enough to redeem the song.
Another slightly filler-ish song, that's nonetheless better than "Buick 6", is the bluesy "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry". It's got a great little groove chugging along (hey, kinda like a train!), and although the lyrics and melody aren't too exciting in general, I think that the melody in the "And if I die on top of the hill" section is particularly creative, and it creates a very nice hook. The song also features some notably great harmonica and piano work.
Another song that is very slightly filler to my ears is "Queen Jane Approximately". Now, I will say that the melody is rather nice in this song, as is the general warm mood created by the lyrics, those two attributes just aren't enough to carry a song for 6 minutes. Definitely not a bad song, it's just not quite classic to my ears.
Now, a song that IS quite classic to my ears is the breakneck "Tombstone Blues". The lyrics are positively genius on this track ("John the Baptist, after torturing a thief / Looks up at his hero, the commander-in-chief / Saying tell me great hero, but please make it brief / Is there a hole for me to get sick in?"), and Dylan's snarling vocal delivery is both infectiously awesome AND irritating at the same time (I particularly like how he sings the line "Now, the medicine man comes and he shuffles inside / He walks with a swagger..."), to great effect. Also, the melody is positively fantastic on this song as well. Another great feature here is how the guitar slowly grows more and more raunchy with each repetition of the main lick, right after the "...with the tombstone blues" line in the chorus. By the end of the song, that thing sounds downright nasty! Brilliant.
Along the same lines, we have the title track, which is also a rocker with some awesome lyrics ("God said to Abraham, kill me a son / Abe said 'Man, you must be puttin' me on / God said 'no' / Abe said 'what? / God said 'You can do what you want Abe, but, um, next time you see me comin' you better run"). The groove here is infectious as heck, and the melody is just as catchy. I also dig how Dylan sneers the words "Highway 61" at the end of every verse. Also great is "Like a Rolling Stone". No, it's not the greatest song of all time, or anything like that, but it's a fantastic track. And that's all I'm going to say about "Rolling Stone". You can read more about it...pretty much anywhere.
The lovely "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" has always been a favorite of mine, because its sweet melody is probably the "prettiest" thing here. It's definitely the friendliest track on here, as Dylan keeps the sneer to a minimum, and that definitely helps things out as far as mood diversity goes. Now, a song where Dylan most certainly DOESN'T turn down the sneer is the raging "Ballad of a Thin Man". This song is essentially Dylan's seething attack on the common "unhip" American. His singing wears on me a bit towards the end, but it's still a very solid track. The guitar and organ work on this song are particularly good, by the way.
And so we come to an end with the single best thing Dylan ever did, that's right, it's the epic "Desolation Row". Everything about it's amazing -- the melody, the guitar work, the lyrics....everything. I'm completely entranced by it for every single one of it's 11 minutes, and I don't want it to be any shorter. It's the perfect length just the way it is. Now, the question many people want to know the answer to is "What do the lyrics mean?". Here's my answer: They mean everything and nothing. They're both logical and nonsense. I know these paradoxes are confusing, but seriously, that's my best way of explaining it. Dylan weaves all these characters, both real and fictional, together to create a completely engrossing world, and depending on what you personally take out of it, "Desolation Row" can mean anything. As for my personal opinion as to what this "Row" is? I personally think that it's the embodiment of all evil, the place that represents everything morally wrong with the human mind. A sort of Hell, if you well. But again, that's just me. "Desolation Row" can mean anything. And that's its greatest lyrical strength.
So there you have it, Highway 61 Revisited. It's most certainly a must-own, and I give it my highest recommendation, but a wee bit of uninspired filler keeps it from reaching absolutely immortal status. But it sure is close.