Song 17: Bob Dylan, “Queen Jane Approximately” (1965)

highway611

Where to start with Bob Dylan? I have nothing new to add about his greatness, and I’m not sure I could dig up any information that would be too new to you. Instead, I’ll tell you what I love about Highway 61 Revisited, and about this song in particular.

I wrote in my last post about “chaos barely contained” (or ugh, put less pretentiously, “barely contained chaos”), and I have a feeling I’ll be writing about that a lot here. It’s one of my favorite things to listen to, whether in a feedback-addled Wilco song or an almost-too-drunk Replacements performance. I love the tension that results from a song sounding like it’s teetering on the edge, like it’s about to fall apart. There’s something beautiful about that.

That’s the way I feel about this era of Dylan. Highway 61 Revisited has been described as Dylan’s first rock album, even though “Desolation Row” is entirely acoustic and the record’s predecessor, Bringing It All Back Home, had plenty of electric guitar. But it’s true: Highway 61 just sounds like a totally different ballgame in Dylan’s evolution; everything sounds electric, even when it’s not. Dylan referred to Blonde on Blonde as “that thin, that wild mercury sound,” but I think that description applies more to Highway 61. The songs, though beautifully arranged and impeccably written, sound unpredictable and unstable.

So why “Queen Jane Approximately”? I love every song on Highway 61, but this song never gets its due. Sure, it’s kind of a rehash of “Like A Rolling Stone,” but it’s a little less direct, a little more sly. And the sneering of “Like A Rolling Stone,” though brilliant, is a bit much sometimes; on those days I’d rather hear the sarcastic questions of “Queen Jane.” And I love how, when Dylan sings “won’t you come see me” the first time in each chorus, the chord is the root (the key that the song is in), but the bass is playing the fifth instead. It’s playing a different note than the chord normally requires, giving that section a feeling of anticipation, a tension that finally releases when Dylan sings “Jane.” Then there’s that piano, which seems to be doing a call-and-response game with Dylan, joining in the mockery with a few asides.

There are moments on Highway 61 Revisited when it sounds like the band isn’t sure whether Dylan is about to sing a chorus, verse, or bridge, and that works to the record’s advantage. There isn’t much dependable about a thin, wild mercury sound, and that’s what we love about Bob Dylan.

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