Of course, electric Dylan sounded little like other rock music in 1965. The Byrds, using many of Dylan’s songs, were youthful and bright with fresh chimes of 12-strings, and The Who and The Rolling Stones, while sharing many of Dylan’s amplified blues roots, were wild and rebellious. Perhaps only Lennon’s work on The Beatles’ "Help" and patches of The Kink Kontroversy tuned in to the same sources, because rather than young, clean, and itching for a fight, the Dylan of Highway 61 Revisited sounds bummed.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bob Dylan not only took musical cues from the blues, he took the attitude. If that single that hit the charts was a scathing attack of acidic revenge, the next song, "Tombstone Blues", rides its hyper-gallop telling tales of corruption, need, and desperation. "It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" finds a singer who has, “been up all night,” staring out the window, accompanied by gloriously trudging music which shares the narrator’s exhaustion. "Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues" steps lightly with defeat and resignation, and the mocking "Ballad of a Thin Man" is drawn out and ominous, hinting at doom and helplessness.
Even the upbeat songs betray this mood. "From a Buick 9" is a bouncy, giddy celebration of a woman whose primary attribute seems to be her ability to save the singer from his troubles and to patch him up when that is impossible. The strummed guitars of "Queen Jane Approximately" offers comfort if the title character should stop by, but the singer not only seems to think that she never will visit until tragedy strikes her, but he also expects that disaster as inevitable. The crazy whirl whistling at the beginning of the title track seems to promise wacky comedy, but this humor proves more rooted in the absurdity of life and its evils than in slapstick.
The folk faithful may have thrown a fit at Dylan ‘selling out’ to the teeny-bopper pop crowd, but the truth was that underneath those electrified squawks and that skipping drum beat is a pure strain of hung-out, used-up, morning-after, and all too adult blues. This undercurrent seeps to the surface in the album’s classic closer, the acoustic dirge for "Desolation Row", the alley were hopes, dreams, and last chances die a sad death so miserable and inevitable that few bother even to put up a fight. Even here, that sense of surrender to despair is too simple of a description for a song complex enough to nurse a buried but brutal sense of resentment and anger. Unlike many lengthy songs, "Desolation Row" earns every one of its elevens minutes.
Unlike ethereal trip that Dylan would later send the listener on with Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited is a train ride across the night, rooted, grounded, and going nowhere.
The CD layer of this reissue is a huge improvement over the previous Columbia release and rivals the excellent DCC gold disc that fetches a commanding price nowadays. The SACD does an even better job reproducing the sound, with a natural, earthy, unprocessed sound wholly appropriate for this raw, rare American music. The natural dynamic of the mix and the fullness of the instruments, especially the bass drum and the piano, gives the rustic elements of the albums a lived-in quality while still allowing the guitar to blister away when appropriate.
Highway 61 Revisited is a singular achievement, an earth-bound, world-weary album seductive and comforting in its worn-out languor. Incredibly, Dylan released this less than half a year after the excellent Bringing it All Back Home; this amazing pace probably accounts for this album’s fatigue, but it certainly does not explain its brilliance.