Throwback Review: Highway 61 Revisited
Bob Dylan has recently been announced as the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. On account of his status as a singer-songwriter and an untraditional author, this selection drew criticism from many in the literary world. You may decry me as a heretic, but I know next to nothing about this man. A quick Internet search revealed that he has released 37 studio albums and many other projects to date throughout his career thus far, and it appears that he has not finished recording yet. Given such an extensive repertoire of music, no two sources agree on which album best represents his style, since he has had decades to adapt it. To get only a tiny glimpse into Dylan’s work, I chose to listen to Highway 61 Revisited (1965), Bob Dylan’s sixth studio album, which was released when he was 24. The album reached No. 3 on American charts, so at the very least I have learned what was hip in 1965, and now you too can be so lucky.
Highway 61 Revisited is titled after the road which, in the 1960s, ran from Duluth, Minnesota (Dylan’s birthplace) to New Orleans, Louisiana, and is heralded as the route which blues took as it spread north. Since this was my first experience purposefully listening to Bob Dylan, I did not try to evaluate each of his songs individually; half a century of music critics have that covered. What follows is a general overview of the album. However, I will mention that it includes, “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan’s most popular song.
Dylan’s voice immediately caught my attention. It is quite raspy and gravelly, which contributes to the emotions he portrays throughout the album. In many songs, he breaks from his rhyme scheme unexpectedly, slips into a dissonant chord, or simply speaks the end of a line instead of singing. This serves well to keep the listener’s attention, as one is never entirely sure what will happen next. However, I found that the majority of the songs on the album have the same overall feeling of distress and emptiness brought up in the first track and extending into the closing eleven-minute ballad, “Desolation Row.” Adding to the mournful and disparaged tone, in true folk fashion, most songs have extended harmonica features between verses.
Another way Dylan distinguishes between songs is the vastly different sound of the intros. For example, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” begins with measured, slow, cheery guitar and piano chords, whereas the titular track “Highway 61 Revisited” sets out with a siren whistle and fever pitch toward the first verse. Perhaps something has changed since 1965, but I don’t understand the necessity for the siren whistle as an instrument. Lyrically, it seems like Dylan thoroughly enjoyed writing the album. He is irreverent, bringing Biblical themes, literary characters and historical figures into a darker light in “Desolation Row”, in which he also dredges up moments brushed over by history and forces them onto the stage.
In the end, Bob Dylan is certainly not my favorite artist, and at the moment I just can’t resonate with the twang that comes through in most of these songs. I understand that I am completely disconnecting this work from its historical context, and am therefore missing out on an important aspect of appreciating this as art. I do respect that his messages and voice appear coherent and genuine. While I most likely will not be listening to this album over again any time soon, I can see myself adding a few tracks to my library—
you never know when you’ll need an eleven-minute reminder to examine your perspective.