Vinyl Corner : Bob Dylan ‘Highway 61 Revisited’

Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound, how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect – as well as giving a brief overview of the music itself. Following on from our recent special feature on Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood On The Tracks’, this time we’re looking at ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ – another essential record from a decade beforehand. As with ‘Blood On The Tracks’, we’ll be comparing different versions to see which sounds best.

The Music:

1965 could be perhaps the single most important year in Bob Dylan’s five-plus decade career. It marked the release of two albums – ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ and ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ – which saw Dylan drastically reinvent his approach to song writing, lyricism and the music he would set it to. His words became less overtly politicised, becoming more surrealistic and impressionistic – a transition that had begun on 1964’s ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan’. Although much has been made of his transition from almost exclusively acoustic instrumentation towards an electric full band sound, also of note is the fact that his approach to arrangement fundamentally changed, not just his chosen instrumentation. The result of this shift was a trio of albums (the third being 1966’s ‘Blonde On Blonde’, which we previously covered on Vinyl Corner here) – all radically different to the four that preceded them. Attempting to highlight a standout from the three is near impossible – compelling arguments can be made for each one. Nevertheless, plenty would point to the middle child – ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ – not only as the highlight of this era of Dylan’s output but perhaps his entire discography. Lyricism here walks a fine line between deeply engrained meaning, often only insinuated, and out-and-out surrealism – a combination which rewards obsessive scrutiny and an active imagination. Musicality and intonation is some of the most varied on any Dylan record, with the cutting lead guitar and ceaseless forward motion of ‘Tombstone Blues’ comfortably juxtaposed with the finessed melancholy of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’, or the resigned sigh of ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’.

The Pressing:

Those who read our recent ‘Blood On The Tracks’ feature will be familiar with the setup here: we’re going to compare different versions of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ to discern which one we will name the definitive version. After all, there are so many choices out there with a record as enduring as this, that there’s no shortage of options for potential buyers. This time, though, we’ll be comparing the following three versions of the the album: a 1965 UK Mono 1st press, a late ’70s / early ’80s UK Stereo reissue and the 2014 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab audiophile reissue. There’re a few things to take into consideration here: condition obviously varies between the three albums and, although the two vintage copies remain in great shape, comparisons between surface noise and playback quality are essentially meaningless when comparing a recently released audiophile reissue with a well-played 50 year old LP. Instead, we’re going to focus on the sonic properties of the three copies, focusing on the mixes and mastering to see which we like the best.

Meticulously remastered for a discerning audiophile market, it should come as no surprise that the level of detail found on the 2014 MFSL reissue is outstanding. Where all other versions of the album are a single LP, this reissue is a 45rpm double. Whilst some may find the frequent side changes irksome, the sonic rewards are enough to justify what some may consider a small inconvenience. The 1965 Mono sounds great, with a degree of focus and body to the sound that intrinsically comes with a well engineered Mono recording. There’s two MFSL versions of the album on vinyl – a 2014 release in Stereo (the one we’re looking at) and a 2016 version in Mono. The MFSL’s stereo mix definitely accentuates and reveals certain subtle nuances either inaudible or overly discreet in the original Mono mix – a prime example of which is the apparent absence of any form of hand percussion in the Mono version of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’. The MFSL brings out a previously hidden shaker part in the right speaker that actually adds quite a lot to the song.

Now let’s bring into the picture the late ’70s Stereo reissue. Compared side-by-side it becomes obvious that the mix is more or less the same between this reissue and the MFSL version. Although the source material may be similar, the difference between the two is vast. By comparison to the MFSL pressing, the CBS Stereo reissue sounds markedly muffled and dull. Drums thud rather unconvincingly and the ideally razor sharp guitar of ‘Tombstone Blues’ doesn’t quite cut through like it should. Dylan’s vocals, too, don’t quite hit the mark with overall sound a little too focused on treble at the expense on any real body. In comparison, the MFSL remaster throws the recording into sharp focus – thankfully it was originally enough of a well engineered album to withstand the new-found detail. The acoustic lead guitar parts on ‘Desolation Row’ absolutely shimmer on the MFSL version, to the point where they sound almost disconcertingly like hearing actual unamplified guitar played live.

It’s very clear, then, that the MFSL edition renders our late ’70s / early ’80s CBS reissue redundant; it’s simply a clearly superior version of the album and the CBS reissue doesn’t have any noticeable quirks that would necessitate inclusion into a completionists’ collection. Our original Mono version is a different story. While we would recommend, in-a-heartbeat, the MFSL version to anyone interested in owning only one version of the album, the Mono mix throws the album into a different light to the Stereo. Although fidelity isn’t as sharp on the original (Mono) as it is on the MFSL reissue, sonically the original pressing still impresses. There’re a few subtle differences between the two that go past simply being side-effects of a different mix. It’s hard to tell if the Mono and Stereo versions of ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’ are different, but similar, takes; but one that is obvious is that the Mono version fades out noticeably sooner, with both the MFSL and CBS stereo reissues giving something in the region of an extra 15 seconds of music before fading out. Also of note, though mostly as a matter of interest, is the fact that the original Mono and the MFSL reissue run at ever-so-slightly different pitches. The difference is very subtle and to our ears inaudible under normal listening conditions but when played side by side the difference becomes noticeable. We would guess that this resulted from the original Mono tapes being played minutely slower or faster than they were meant to be, resulting in a slightly altered pitch – but this is conjecture.

All in all, then, there’re a number of ways to go here but only one we would heartily recommend. The original Mono pressing comes highly recommended to Dylan aficionados but is inessential to more casual listeners. The CBS late ’70s Stereo reissue may prove satisfactory to those looking to find a cheap way to hear the album on wax, but is not a version of the album we would particularly recommend. Our vote for the definitive edition of the album certainly has to go to the MFSL 2014 edition – a reissue which boasts spectacular sonics and a high quality pressing. Of course, the pricetag is considerable and you could buy one of the ’70s or ’80s reissues of the album a few times over for the cost of the MFSL version, but for those who want to experience ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ in as-good-as-it-gets quality, then we have no hesitation in recommending it. There are of course other options out there – most notably the 2015 Legacy reissue. We haven’t heard that specific pressing and therefore can’t comment on the quality; however we do have numerous other Dylan reissues on Legacy and they all impress, so that’s likely a highly recommendable version for the more price-conscious buyer.

The Packaging:

Those of you who previously read the Vinyl Corner feature on ‘Blood On The Tracks’ won’t be surprised by this at all, but there’s little competition between the three releases in terms of quality of presentation. The MFSL edition wins by a country mile, looking resplendent in a thick, chunky gatefold sleeve made of heavy card. There’re plenty of great images on the inner-gatefold spread and the records are housed in audiophile grade MFSL sleeves. The spine looks excellent, with a monochrome colour scheme making it easy to read – and the sheer thickness makes it easy to find amongst the rest of the collection. The release is even machine numbered for those who are enticed by such things.

The packaging on the Mono original has a charm all of its own, we must say. As with many ’60s UK sleeves, it’s a front-laminated flipback with non-laminated card rear. Although such sleeves are highly susceptible to damage, there are few greater joys in record collecting than finding one which is still in great condition. The CBS Stereo reissue has little of interest to report in terms of packaging – the sleeve is printed on flimsy, lightweight card and it’s distinctly free of bell-and-whistles. Much as the pressing itself, this will prove adequate to very casual listens and those with a tight budget – though, to be fair, the presumably far superior 2015 Legacy pressing can be attained so cheaply that even then buying the CBS late ’70s reissue would be an odd choice.

Final Thoughts:

The MFSL edition is the definite winner here, no doubts about that. The sonic presentation glistens with a new-found focus and clarity in the recording. The subtle stereo mixing reveals a few touches that the Mono glosses over to some extent. We have no hesitation in recommending the Mono original to big fans of the album as a supplement to the MFSL version, as it definitely presents the album in a noticeably different way. Those on a budget could buy a CBS reissue however the album’s sonics are a touch dull and we would recommend the 2015 Legacy reissue instead.

Wanting more Dylan? Here’s a list of all the previous Dylan albums we’ve covered on Vinyl Corner:

Blonde On Blonde

Blood On The Tracks

Oh Mercy

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