CK Retro Review: Street Legal by Bob DylanPosted: June 19, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)