CK Retro Review: Street Legal by Bob Dylan

1978’s Street Legal doesn’t hold the highest reputation among Bob Dylan releases. The last stop before his religious period, it took a critical beating upon its release for its poor sound quality and the slick urban rock arrangements. Yet the sound quality issues have long since been solved in reissues, and the album contains several undeniable classics as well as some unjustly overlooked beauties. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

9. “We Better Talk This Over”- Short of “It’s not you, it’s me,” Bob trots out every possible cliché that one might use to separate from a relationship that has run its course. Still, the lyrics would suffice if not for the clunky arrangement and guitar riff that sounds like it was on loan from the Marshall Tucker band.

8. “No Time To Think”- There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in the narrative, with Dylan addressing a protagonist beset on all sides by every manner of existential calamity. Yet, for once, he offers a long song that tends to drag. Part of the problem is that the music doesn’t have the mesmeric quality of some of his other epic offerings. The lyrics lack a real core to them as well, so whatever good lines Bob gets off, and there are a few in here, they tend to lose their impact.

THREE STARS

7. “True Love Tends To Forget”- Dylan would favor a blue-eyed soul approach a few years down the road on Empire Burlesque, but the early evidence of it can be found on a few Street Legal tracks like this one. The title of this song is one of the most interesting parts about it, suggesting, depending on your mood about the subject, that love can either be beneficially forgetful or harmfully ignorant. I wish that the musical backing had been a bit less blandly professional and presented a few rough edges that would have better suited Dylan’s interesting lyrics.

6. “New Pony”- Even at the most discombobulated points of his career, and this would seem to be one of them even if Street Legal turned out much better than its reputation suggests, Dylan could always fall back on a lusty blues song when in doubt. “New Pony” fills that bill on this album. Bob sings it with the kind of abandon that shows he’s really comfortable with the material, and the band feels cut free as well from the just-so arrangements of the other songs.

5. “Baby, Stop Crying”- The lyrics are pretty direct here, as the narrator implores a girl in a world of hurt to quit her tears. What really sells this song is the thoughtfulness of the arrangement and the songcraft, how it builds from Dylan’s low drone in the verses to the impassioned singing of the chorus. Little things like that can carry a song a long way, especially when you’re operating in the more contemporary idiom Bob chose for Street Legal.

FOUR STARS

4. “Changing Of The Guards”- The idea of a coming transformative event has long been a theme in Dylan’s work, but never has it seemed to drip with more portent and import than as it does here. The narrator slyly moves amidst the tumult all around him hoping to come out on the right side of the fence when the change occurs. Bob’s lyrics have a wild and powerful eloquence about them, and every time that saxophone riff revs up again, it’s like a fanfare calling the lyrics onto the field of battle.

FIVE STARS

3. “Is Your Love In Vain?”- This was one of the Street Legal songs that took a critical beating in some corners, in part because of the line asking the woman if she can cook or sew, which some took as sexist. The song is, in truth, anything but; the narrator is just a wary dude who wants to be sure that his new love is really in it for all the right reasons, so he can be excused for making sure that all his bases are covered. It’s an ingratiating melody and Dylan evokes vulnerability in surprisingly touching ways. If you’ve already decided on this one in a negative way, you should really give it another listen.

2. “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)”- Think of this masterful closing track as a latter-day “Visions Of Johanna.” In each song, a narrator tumbles through an urban noir scene, addled by all that he witnesses and experiences, but mostly bad off because he misses the one person who can help it all make sense. The earlier song was much more surreal; this one inhabits a much more gritty landscape. Dylan’s wordplay is so visceral that you feel like you’re right there taking the punches (and doling out the kicks) with him.

1. “Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)”- The song is a bit of an outlier in terms of its music from the rest of the album, in that the instrumentation is essentially the same but there are far more open spaces in the arrangement. Dylan sends a pair of drifters out on an unforgiving journey, and they contemplate their moment of truth at one of their pit stops. “Senor” is forever silent, if he even exists and isn’t a figment of the narrator’s imagination, while the narrator peppers him with questions about what action they should take to end their torment one way or the other. You can read the lyrics literally or as the paranoid manifestations of the narrator’s damaged psyche and weary heart. Either way, it’s spooky, powerful, wondrous stuff from Bob on this one.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238

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30 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Street Legal by Bob Dylan”

  1. Jacek says:

    Kid, these short and thus necessarily more concise track reviews are making me realize that you’re really good at presenting the core scene of a Dylan song, and only thanks to you now do I see how many brilliant scene-settings Dylan’s done over the years! As for Street-Legal, well… I’ll take it over the electric trilogy and all the early acoustic albums rolled into one. Seriously. I think it’s one of his, or anybody’s, absolute best. But though you’re clearly not so enamored, this diehard fan concedes that you write about Street-Legal very well and make several fine insights. I especially like your point about the mesmerizing quality of No Time to Think, or rather your missing it: I *do* get mesmerized and it makes all the difference! I also like your linking the abandon in Bob’s voice on New Pony (my favorite Dylan studio vocal performance) to his comfort with the hard blues idiom, and pointing out the more negative spin on the phrase “true love tends to forget,” which hadn’t occurred to me. Your little bit on Changing of the Guards is phenomenal too (but oh, oh let me gripe this once: four stars?! I knew it was coming, what with your original song countdown, but I remain somewhat puzzled).

    • Baggy says:

      Agree re Changing of the Guards, an all-time favourite for me. If I had to pick one verse to show Bob unleashing all his vocal, lyrical. and musical power, then it would be the penultimate verse of this song..”either get ready for elimination, or your heart must have the courage….”. Wow !

      • Don’t need your organization, I’ve shined your shoes.
        Moved your mountains and marked your cards, but Eden is burning.

        Wonderful!

      • Jonathan Vega says:

        Agree too. Changing of the Guards deserved to be on the 5-star podium. Alas, it isn’t, but this is still a great review, even accounting for the parts I don’t necessarily agree with (I would put ¨We Better Talk This Over¨ at the 3 stars list).

    • countdownkid says:

      Thanks for the praise. You do a pretty good job of providing insightful commentary about these songs yourself. Keep it coming.

  2. JS says:

    Wonderful rhyming pattern in Changing of the Guards as well.

  3. Bob says:

    Mostly agreed – but I think you underestimate the cleverness and exactness of the rhyming in ‘Talk This Over’, eg the ‘vows that we kept…swept…slept’…Lovely triplets.

  4. David Lewis says:

    Thanks, you have done a great job of reassessing this album, which is one that continues to divide people … maybe due to its plain oddness in sound and lyrics.

    And that back cover photograph!

    I agree with some of the above comments – the quality of the writing on NTTT and WBTTO elevate these songs well beyond two stars in my view … I’d give them three.

    • countdownkid says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I do think that the sound threw some people. I also agree that the quality of the writing is uniformly high, but NTTT is a bit too all over the place for my tastes despite some great lines, while WBTTO could have benefited from a better arrangement.

  5. Ralf says:

    And “I’m lost in the haze of your delicate ways, with both eyes glazed”.

  6. Street Legal ranks with BOTT and Love and Theft as one of Dylan’s very best albums, IMO. I disagree with you about ‘No Time to Think.’ At least 4 stars. I find the melody unforgettable.

    • countdownkid says:

      Good to hear so much love for Street Legal. If you look the reviews up from when it came out, you would think it was awful. Glad to see that fans have come around to it with the passing of time.

  7. Shabtai says:

    Hi CK

    Thanks for another very good review.
    My inputs:
    1. NTTT deserves at least 4 stars, I would give it 5 . Just because of lines like “You’ve murdered your vanity, buried your sanity for pleasures you must now resist”. Nobody writes or has written lines like these.
    2. COTG is a top classic and is also easily 5 stars.
    3. I also prefer SL over the 60’s classic trilogy.
    4. Agree with ranking Senor on top of the list

    • countdownkid says:

      I agree with the fact that “No Time To Think” has some awesome lines; I’ve just never been able to find any center in the song. I do like the fact that you love this album so much, because I’ve been singing its praises for a while now.

  8. “senor” is also the way to address god in spanish.

  9. rich whalen says:

    agree i love this album; a rare cover to match the quality of these tracks is chris whitley’s changing of the guard; it stands right next to dylan’s version. amazing stuff.

  10. Mads Jensen says:

    I never understood why Street Legal is regarded low in Dylans Anthem. Especially since the remastered came out. The lyrics have cinematic quality, just like the recordings of Caribbean Wind and Brownsville Girl…

    And by the way. Thanks for the effort. Always a pleasure to read your reviews…

    • Baggy says:

      I think that Street Legal doesn’t fit the narrative that history wants to write …..folk bob, amphetamine bob, country bob, mid 70s classic bob, god-bob, lost 80s bob, neverending bob, near-death bob , the late trilogy and the bootleg series.. I’d put Changing Of The Guards alongside Caribbean Wind, Groom, and Brownsville Girl and say those four songs (which don’t really slot into this narrative) are way up there with anything else he’s achieved in his whole career.

      • countdownkid says:

        Baggy, that’s a great point. It does sort of stand alone, doesn’t really have any kind of thematic hook, and I think a lot of reviewers thought the rock band sound was somehow beneath Dylan, which was absurd, of course. (If guys like Springsteen and Seger could do it, why not Bob?) I’ve been heartened by the fact that so many commenters think it’s one of his finest albums. I certainly think it’s one of his most underrated.

    • countdownkid says:

      Mads, I agree with you 100 percent. When I first began doing my Dylan list, I was shocked to see so many negative reviews and such attached to Street Legal, an album that I dearly loved. The sound must have been downright awful when it came out, but, as you said, those problems have long since disappeared.

  11. Jane says:

    I love this album, something about the mixture of vulnerablility and arrogance, desperation and certainty, battling it out in every song. But that singular voice on Stop Crying, the most seductive, sinister invitation I ever heard. (To the river, not to stop crying)

    • countdownkid says:

      Jane, you really hit the nail on the head with the dichotomy of these songs. He really seems at war with himself throughout, and it makes these songs almost painfully vibrant.

      • Jacek says:

        “I fought with my twin, that enemy within, ’til both of us fell by the way…” (Not that I need to quote it to ya!)

      • Ralf says:

        No Time To Think also brings up duality and glancing through the mirror. You are right that the album is about a man’s battle with himself. And Bob himself said in 1978: “No man can fight another like the man who fights himself. Who could be a stronger enemy? It’s true that a man is his own worst enemy, just as he is his own best friend. If you deal with the enemy within, then no enemy without can stand a chance.”

  12. Jane says:

    PS Yes you’re very good at picking out the heart of a song. Don’t always agree with you of course and have no real interest in ratings, but always good to see what you say.

  13. Jonathan Vega says:

    If you’re into videogames, I’d say that Street Legal is kinda a lot like “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask”: a work that was mostly ignored, if not outright hated on its time, but that today is placed among the author’s masterpieces by a very vocal community, specially over the internet.

    Seriosusly, so far, I’m yet to read a review that actually dismisses this album. Most of the pieces I find are at least warm to it, to the point that it makes me wonder whether its ‘universally hated’ status is nothing but a myth. I’m only aware the album was originally hated because most reviews begin with the line: “Originally panned by critics, but…”, or something alike.

    As for me, it is indeed one of my favorites. To me, it ends the “Goodbye, Sara” trilogy (because Dylan tends to work in trilogies) masterfully. When an album (and with it, a full age) ends with the verse “If I´m there in the morning, babe, you´ll know I survived, but without you it just doesnt´seem right. Oh, where are you tonight?”, you know you can’t top it. Not even Dylan himself can. I’d say this one is better than his rock trilogy from the mid-sixties.

    Loved the review, even if I don’t fully agree with it. Personally, I love “We Better Talk This Over”, both in lyrics and arrangement, and I think it deserves to be 3-star tier, if not 4-star; similarly, I cannot believe you didn’t give “Changing of the Guards” a full five stars. You know it deserves it. It is one of Dylan’s all-time classics. Courses for horses. A great read.

  14. Futzi Wailer says:

    I remember hearing Sultans of Swing on the radio around the time Street Legal came out and thinking not only does Knopfler sound like Dylan, he sounds better than Dylan. For some reason Street Legal was well received in Europe, as was the tour while both were panned here in the USA. For me, 3 great songs, Changing, Senor and Where Are You Tonight. The big band sound doesn’t work for the most part and the backup singers are annoying at best. Dylan obviously doesn’t think much of the songs as with the exception of Senor, none had legs. I remember seeing Dylan for two nights in Ottawa in 1990 when he made a joke on stage about bringing back “the girls” in response to a review he didn’t like. The audience yelled back a resounding “no”!


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