- Author Simon Lucas
- Published August 15, 2014
Why I love… Highway 61 Revisited
Simon Lucas accepts the challenge: name your all-time, definitive favourite album.
I was foolish ever to have accepted this commission. I have tried, and failed, to produce even a workably short shortlist of favourite albums when the subject has come up (and come up it surely has) in the past. And this isn’t some casual conversational gambit from someone who soon enough wishes they hadn’t asked. This is to be published. This is going to be my Favourite Album.
I don’t know if I can choose. There’s too much pressure. How on Earth can I put one album above all others when so many have meant the world to me at some point?
There are criteria to be considered.
It needs to be packed, end-to-end, with great songs, obviously. This handily discounts The Beatles – Abbey Road has ‘Octopus’s Garden’, ‘The Beatles’ is all over the shop and even the magnificent Revolver has ‘Yellow “Sodding” Submarine’. Just because my children love it doesn’t mean I have to. Mind you, if the commission was for My Favourite Band instead, we’d already be deep into the importance of the Hamburg days on the Fab Four’s development.
Everybody knows the albums (or at least the songs) that really resonate; that whisk them back to the time, the place, the age, the emotional state that prevailed when they first heard them. So I could go with Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water (which is crammed with extraordinary songs like ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’, is performed and produced with stunning clarity and has the sort of melodic prowess that can make grown men go all husky. Or David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).
I could equally make a case for The Velvet Underground. Sure, the accepted wisdom is that the first two Velvet Underground albums, with John Cale grinding away on viola and all the drugs and kinky sex overflowing from the songs are the classics, but The Velvet Underground has ‘What Goes On’ and ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and ‘Beginning To See The Light’ and the most thrillingly spindly Fender Telecaster sounds ever recorded. So I think it’s their best album and, by extension, one of the best albums ever made. It was the sound of my first flat-share.
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There are other superb albums that fit the “personal significance” bill, though. Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid In Full combines transcendent beats and rhymes at a level that has never been bettered, while Rounds by Four Tet is staggeringly communicative, lyrical and emotionally engaging for an instrumental, overwhelmingly electronic album. Both have stayed with me for years, not least because they accompanied the first time I had my heart thoroughly broken (one of the truly beautiful aspects of music, I think. The soundtracks to the most hideous times can, in repose, be the most nourishing recordings of all).
But surely my Favourite Album has to go beyond these fundamental requirements. Critical acclaim is not always a reliable benchmark – every generation has its ‘Forever Changes’, its ‘Astral Weeks’, its ‘The Stone Roses’ and, let’s face it, none of those albums are really all that. And it’s as well to guard against ego too – when committing to a Favourite Album there’s a need to present oneself as a person of substance. If my Favourite Album was Stars by Simply Red* I don’t think this is the platform from which I’d announce it.
(*Stars by Simply Red isn’t my favourite album.)
Lyrics are almost as important as music; at least, if there are going to be lyrics, they can’t be dumb. That’s why I find myself considering not one but two Elvis Costello & The Attractions albums. This Year’s Model and Imperial Bedroom are both devastatingly accomplished confections of lyrical dexterity and muscular, tender musicianship. “Things you see are getting hard to swallow/you’re easily led but you’re much too scared to follow” or “charged with insult and flattery / her body moves with malice / do you have to be so cruel to be callous?” are strong enough in isolation, but in the hands of a band with the out-and-out feel of The Attractions they take flight. In a sweaty, vengeful kind of way.
So the songs all have to be brilliant, the lyrics equally so. Sound is important too, of course – my Favourite Album must have a strong sonic sensibility. And the album has to mean a lot to me on a personal, emotional level. And it has to have endurance – to have proved itself time and again. It has to be the album I love most of all. And so I bite the bullet.
Everything about Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan meets my criteria. The songs are without exception complete – from the whip-crack snare that opens side one with the revolutionary Like A Rolling Stone to the sad, funny, poignant eleven-and-a-half minutes of Desolation Row that brings side two to a close, it’s all killer. The sound is organic and whiskery, driven by organ and piano, and the playing (with the exception of Dylan’s wilfully approximate harmonica) is impeccable in terms of feel – what musicians call “the pocket” is fully in evidence and every one of the players inhabits like it was the most natural thing in the world.
Throughout the album, the words pour out of Dylan as if he’s a conduit. His writing is eloquent, smart-arsed, derisive and enchanted with its own imagery, while his voice is just derisive. There’s precious little sympathy among the scorn, and when it comes (“when all of the bandits that you turned your other cheek to / all lay down their bandanas and complain / and you want somebody you don’t have to speak to / won’t you come see me Queen Jane?”) it’s qualified in the extreme.
I was an impressionable age when I first heard Highway 61 Revisited and it spoke to me directly. Intimately. It knew how I felt and articulated those feelings better than I ever could have. At the time, it was a superior collection of songs I liked the sound of, with lyrics I was in awe of (“God said to Abraham, ‘kill me a son’ / Abe says, ‘man, you must be putting me on’”). Plus it had an excellent cover. It was only later I was able to put it into context, to see what an audacious, risky and bloody-minded recording it really is. And the sound, the playing, the words, the singing, all still resonate with me on an almost subconscious level. Even now, when the album’s almost 50, nearly 30 years since I first heard it, Highway 61 Revisited sounds new and blazingly alive.
Simon Lucas is the editor of What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision magazine.