Up to a couple of years ago, I struggled to appreciate the genius of Bob Dylan due to my deep aversion to his legendary nasal tones. But now I am older and wiser (and have heard his cover of Moonshiner which was the turning point), I’m ready to accept Bob in all his nasal glory. This week’s record of choice, therefore, is Dylan’s sixth studio album, 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited. This record is part of Dylan’s Rock ‘n’ Roll rebirth: thick with every instrument from the organ to the harmonica, it’s a far cry from the stripped-back folk that preceded it, building on what he started to do on his previous album Bringing It All Back Home
My initial reaction to this album (of which I only actually knew one song) is that it is intense. There’s no let up in the complex and intricate portrayals of the lives of people in the city, which are filtered through a variety of Rock ‘n’ Roll outlets. Sometimes bluesy and sexy as in Ballad Of A Thin Man, sometimes a little honky tonk like in It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry, Dylan’s wordsmanship is in full force here, with each song becoming a portrait of a person in a place at a time. At some points, these depictions seem to be didactic, such as in Like A Rolling Stone. In this, Dylan describes the transition from rags to riches (in a few more words than that), telling you not be a dick to those below you, as one day it’s going to be you “scroungin’ your next meal”. Dylan’s takes on the role of the omniscient narrator, judging his subjects as they struggle in their own ways. In Ballad Of A Thin Man, Mr Jones is alone as confused, unaware of what’s happening to him despite his other worldly knowledge:
Ah, you’ve been with the professors and they’ve all liked your looks With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books You’re very well-read, it’s well-known But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is Do you, Mr. Jones?
With Dylan’s slow, almost cocky drawl, these lyrics become a condescending expression of pity for the clueless man who does not, and will never know, everything that Dylan does.
While the tone of the music shifts from down to upbeat, Dylan sticks to the theme of static and somewhat pathetic people, such as in Queen Jane Approximately. Here, he depicts a woman whose friends have abandoned her and children resent her, although he seems to withhold his judgement. Instead, he offers himself up as a remedy to Queen Jane’s problems: as someone for her to speak to when she “when [she] want somebody you don’t have to speak to”.
These are just a few examples of the character driven element of this record, which carves out spaces for all these people and their stories, to make Dylan’s own community within the album. It’s partly this, and partly the completely unrelenting nature of the tracks, that make this record such a force to be reckoned with. Many have tried and failed (including, perhaps, Dylan himself) to better this effort in subsequent years. That in itself is a good enough reason to listen to it; it’s hard to find an album of more complex lyrics that paint a picture better than some artists, without it overshadowing the other musical qualities. Overall, I’ve learnt to love Dylan’s voice, which seems to suit the role of the omniscient storyteller, watching over his creations. Now I just need to find someone to write the future hit Ballad Of Queen Giff. Wish me luck with that.