There have been many so-called “revolutionaries” across music history, but none, I would argue, more prolific than Bob Dylan. His early Folk albums were classics, no doubt, but when he plugged in and alienated his musically conservative fans, he opened the door to a new world of influence. Highway 61 Revisited, the first of Bob Dylan’s fully electric albums, is often considered the master’s peak. Listening back, it’s hard to say if that’s true because even though Highway 61 is certainly perfect, it’s far from the only perfect album in Dylan’s discography. If there’s one thing that can be said for certain about the album, though, it’s that this is Dylan’s most energetic work. Beginning with the timeless “Like a Rolling Stone” (which Rolling Stone magazine unsurprisingly considers the greatest song of all time), the album then shoots through 32 fast-drawing minutes of electric vigor, pausing only for the haunting “Ballad of a Thin Man,” before arriving at the epic, 11-minute “Desolation Row.” It’s said that Bob Dylan changed music forever during that short span of time. While it may not sound quite as revolutionary listening back as it did at the time, it certainly sounds no less excellent.
If “From a Buick 6” is the worst track on the album, featuring Dylan spitting his lines like the rappers of the ’80s would aim to do two decades later, then there is an argument to be made that this is the greatest album of all time. The Rolling Stones and later bands like Aerosmith had to hear that below-the-belt pulse of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, it Takes a Train to Cry” and have their minds blown; as Bob Dylan muses about how good the sun looks good going down as many bluesmen before him had, he delivers one of his most sexual moments on record, and you could be fooled into thinking it was Mick Jagger on that harmonica. The title track gets a lot of love, featuring Dylan armed with a riot whistle and some hilarious lines regarding Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with God, but I’ve always had a soft spot for “Queen Jane Approximately,” featuring one of my favorite song intros of all time courtesy of Paul Griffin.
In truth, the real reason this may be the greatest of Bob Dylan’s albums has nothing to do directly with the man on the front of the cover, it’s the band that he had backing him. Everybody in the studio had their role and carried it out faithfully, exhibiting a sort of chemistry usually reserved for bands that have toured together for years and honed their craft. Harvey Brooks, Russ Savakus and Joe Macho Jr., offer memorable bass lines that don’t outwork the jingles from pianists Paul Griffin and Frank Owens, which in turn leave room for Al Kooper’s gorgeous organ tapestries. But the real star of the show is guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who absolutely blew me away on each track, the least of which was “Like a Rolling Stone.” He doesn’t do anything flashy, for he knows that isn’t his role, but everything he does perform is delightfully tasteful, respectful to the band leader, and yet still undeniably kickass.
Other than “Like a Rolling Stone,” it’s hard to rank the songs here; they’re all fantastic and unforgettable in their own ways. And that’s a trait that that should be held by any album deserving of a five star rating. Over 50 years since the release of this album, there’s no doubt that Highway 61 Revisited is still every bit as great as it was upon its release. And that puts it on hallowed ground.