What can you say about an album that starts with the best song of all time? Not that Like a Rolling Stone is actually the best song of all time, but it continually tops polls and over at Acclaimed Music, they’ve aggregated an insane amount of lists to create one epic list of the 3,000 best songs; Like a Rolling Stone tops that list too – it’s the most acclaimed song of all time. No song can really deserve that, but Like a Rolling Stone is as worthy as any song could be; I’ve come to see it not as a bitter kiss-off to someone else, but as a song Dylan is singing mostly to himself about the way he’s launched himself out into uncharted territory and lost everything he already had to do so. But it really is a perfect recording.
But all I can really do here is just run down the highlights. Every song on this album is a winner, but some are perhaps more winners than some others. Dylan’s lyrical content is still running strong and you can see that in the two most frantic songs on the record, Tombstone Blues & Highway 61 Revisited. Tombstone Blues is taken at a breakneck pace, so breakneck that the instruments aren’t quite in sync with each other which gives the song a wonderful off-kilter feeling and you feel the panic of Dylan’s rush to spit these words out as quickly as they come into his mind, in a way. And lyrics like the conversation between John the Baptist & the Commander in Chief . . . just breathtaking. Highway 61 Revisited is a grim masterpiece as well, particularly that first verse that reimagines the story of Isaac’s sacrifice. Ballad of a Thin Man is also rightly acclaimed; it’s a slow nightmarish journey for Mr. Jones, the man who knows that “there’s something going on here,” but can’t quite ever decipher what it is. That the song was seen as a mid-sixties way to grapple with who was hip and who wasn’t seems unavoidable, but even that obviously intentional overtone seems too simplistic as the song just continues to unfold.
And, finally, though I could spend a couple of sentences on all the other songs as well if I had time, there’s Desolation Row. I think this is the album’s real masterwork; intriguing that after all that electric fire and the controversy surrounding it, the album’s one acoustic track is the one that really hits home. But it has a wonderful, lilting quality to it and Dylan’s lyrics have probably never been better. Dylan envisions the landscape of pop culture, or perhaps the collective unconscious, as a wasted, desolate landscape of weariness, despair and apathy. Bette Davis, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Cain & Abel, T.S. Eliot, the Phantom of the Opera . . . these figures slip through this dreamlike landscape, never quite cohering into their standard images. But somehow everything just feels absolutely perfect. “The Phantom of the Opera in the perfect image of a priest,” “they’re selling postcards of the hanging/they’re painting the passports brown,” “everyone is either making love or else expecting rain,” “I received your letter yesterday, about the time the doorknob broke/When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke?” These lines, and many others, are poetry of such shattering power and strange perfection, evocative without being clear, abstract without being diffuse that it boggles the mind. This is truly Dylan at his absolute best, creating images and ideas that are somehow both unutterably strange and unutterably perfect. Songs like Desolation Row defy criticism really; it’s not just difficult to explain the greatness of the song – it’s impossible – it’s like a lightning rod on the soul has just been struck.
Well, anyway, if it was ridiculous that Dylan put out two albums in 1964, it’s even more insane that he put out two in 1965, because, unlike the two in 1964, these are BOTH masterpieces. Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited; an artist would have a case for genius if he put out these two albums three years apart. That they could be released in a single year is mind-blowing. Dylan is in his most fertile creative period; it feels like the songs are coming so quickly he can’t keep up. Highway 61 Revisited . . . what can you say except what has to be said? Is this getting a little boring? Well, I can’t shake things up; I have to call greatness greatness. 4 stars.
tl;dr – visionary collection of songs finds Dylan at his most creatively fertile; one of those rare albums that changed music forever and yet sounds fresher and more of the moment with every year that passes; absolute mastery. 4 stars.