Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bob Dylan 22: Street-Legal

Street-Legal is something of a transitional album. While Bob had been surfing a wave of success for some time, his marriage was over and the movie he’d spent a year editing was lambasted. The songs that emerged on the album hint at some of the turmoil in his head; some of his most intricate rhyme schemes attempt to follow some equally intricate melodies against a band heavy on horns.
“Changing Of The Guards” has some suggestive imagery—“They shaved her head” being one favorite—but it’s mostly the debut of the “chick singers” that will be omnipresent for the next ten years. “New Pony” is a twelve-bar blues that thuds along while the ladies repeat “How much longer?” for no discernible reason. “No Time To Think” crams too many words in to the point where it’s hard to believe it’s really him. “Baby Stop Crying” ends the side with a musical foreboding of his live show, with updated arrangements of older songs fronted by a guy in a really bad jumpsuit torn between Elvis Presley and Neil Diamond.
Speaking of Elvis, “Is Your Love In Vain?” has echoes of “Can’t Help Falling In Love”. It also doesn’t sound like Bob, but is a good performance. “Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)” is the highlight of the album, mostly because he doesn’t sound as much like he’s straining to be mysterious. “True Love Tends To Forget” is notable for that chord in the middle that always conjures the Looney Toons theme. “We Better Talk This Over” has something of a twang with an extra beat designed to discourage line-dancing. “Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)”, despite the titular reference to “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, doesn’t register enough to make one want to play the album again.
It’s been said that this album has improved thanks to modern technology advances, but the sound doesn’t matter if the songs don’t work. Still, it’s not to suggest that Street-Legal is half-assed; it’s clear he was trying to say something, but he didn’t seem to know what that something was. He would find his way soon enough, and also find a way to confound his audience yet again.

Bob Dylan Street-Legal (1978)—


  1. This is where I got off the bus, and stayed off, for the next twelve years or so. With the benifit of hindsight, it was probably safe to come back when "Oh Mercy" was released, but "Street Legal" was such a burn-- worse than "Self Portrait", I'd say-- that I just couldn't be bothered.

    Is "Street Legal" his worst album? The unfortunate reality is that there are so many bad Dylan albums that it is hard to say. It would have to be on any list of Bad Dylan Albums, for sure.

  2. Street Legal really splits the Dylan audience in half. You either love it or you hate it. In the UK it was hailed by most of the music press and the European audiences. In the USA the critics thought that Dylan had gone all Vegas with the big band and the back-up singers.

    The album was rushed out in time for Dylan's 1978 World Tour. Consequently the original issue suffers from a very poor mix. The late nineties remix reveals a lot more in the details. The album is important, as it represents Dylan going through a transitional stage in his life between separation from his wife and taking up Christian values.

  3. I simply love this album. So there ya go. Ear of the beholder I guess.

  4. This review is insane and could only have been posted by someone who is not actually a fan. "Where Are You Tonight?" is a masterpiece... I could go on, but what's the point of arguing with rubbish?

  5. "Not actually a fan"? I'm guessing you haven't bothered to read any of the other Dylan reviews on this blog. This only makes me appreciate comments like Bill's all the more. Thanks Bill!

  6. "I could go on, but what's the point of arguing with rubbish?"

    If the review is that easily dismissed, why even bother posting a comment?

    I find it amusing that for every Dylan review on this blog, there's some anonymous poster who comments about how utterly without merit the reviews are, yet said anonymous party is obviously back here regularly taking the time to read and offer feedback. It's like the old saying in the newspaper business: "The public hates us so much that they read us every day."


  7. My problems with the album, when it was released, were two-fold. First, the singing was the kind of ranting he developed on his 1974 comeback tour. I imagined him singing the songs in a softer voice, and figured the songs were pretty good. Second, the production values were awful. It was just badly recorded and mixed. Imagine these songs in an "unplugged" venue. They'd work pretty well.

    Dylan seemed pissed-off in those days, and his lack of care here seems to me a kind of contempt for the audience and for his art.

  8. I first bought this LP for $1 at a used record store, knowing fully its reputation. Having paid very little for record and expecting even less enjoyment out of it, I was pleasantly suprised. On the first listen or two Senor is really the only song that jumps out as great. The others vary, from highly irritating (No Time to Think) to mildly catchy with a nice tempo but weird lyrics (Changing of the guards and Where are you tonight?).

    I put this in once in a while over the next couple years when it seemed to match my mood. This isn't an everyday kind of album... you gotta hear it at the right times, when you're feeling down on the world and backed in a corner. Over time I have come to really appreciate the feeling of this album... it feels like the bottom of a shotglass. Again though.. I don't think anybody feels this way ALL the time or I hope not.

    Its a raw, brutal album. I think the "neil Diamond" sound works here; it conjures up an image of some kind of washed up divirced alcoholic lounge singer. Give it a chance.. you'd be suprised how you can identify with this very foreign-feeling version of the Bob Dylan character. Play it at the end of a really bad day and with a couple drinks.

    P.S. I upgraded recently to the newly remastered version and it is vastly superior in sound quality. But its still the same songs. This is one Dylan album where you can live without the vinyl copy.

  9. That's an excellent point David -- this isn't a "sunny day" album, it's an evening or night-time album. Interestingly, even he hasn't played most of the songs live since the year they came out.

  10. To me "Senor" and the hymnlike "Is your Love in Vain" are two of the most moving songs Dylan ever wrote!

  11. wow-
    I love the album- but I love desire too.

    I guess it's all a matter of taste and what you relate to in your own life- like good literature.

    "How much longer" I always thought that New Pony was an incredibly sexy song and how much longer was the woman waiting for and wanting "it."

    At least that is what I would have been saying.

  12. That's quite an interpretation -- I'll keep that in mind on my next (late-night) listen!

  13. i have never heard a bad bob dylan album, and i have heard them all. i am just happy he made and is still making music.

  14. I agree that Street Legal is a transitional album, although I part with the reviewer's overall assessment. I think it is one of Dylan's most underrated albums. Moody, dark, passionate, and searching. You sense that Dylan is struggling in these lyrics, and the transition to the gospel rock of the next three albums is in the grooves. The CD remaster sounds awesome, by the way.

  15. Dylan is simply beyond good or bad. Think about Blonde on Blonde and ask yourself, am I going to judge this guy for something that doesnt match Visions of Johanna?

  16. by far my favorite Bob album, a fatback soul record, the remastered version that is.

  17. I love Street Legal. It's a smokey last-call kind of album, with layers upon layers of mystique. Painfully under-rated, with tons of great lines ("Why should we go on watching each other through a telescople...eventually we'll just hang ourselves on all this tangled rope" is among my favs).

    Initially, this album got lost in the Disco/Punk movements that defined '78, but it's surprising to me that it's not more highly regarded now. This, and Infidels, are the two Dylan albums that will one day be viewed as overlooked masterpieces.

  18. I love the album too. In fact, it's my favourite of all of them. Side two in particular. When I first heard it in 1979 it confirmed for me he was a poet of the highest order. But where are the outtakes?

  19. I think you're a little tough on Street Legal. "Where Are You Tonight" is one of his most underrated songs. A great song that has never reached its full potential. "We Better Talk This Over," is easy to relate to, also has a twang. I confess to loving Street Legal for sentimental reasons.
    Bob's most underrated album.

  20. "I'm exiled, you can't convert me."

  21. this album took a good long while to grow on me - luckily Senor and, for some reason I couldn't put my finger on, Changing of the Guards kept me coming back.

    some of it still seems like a reach to me (the stretch of one word lines in No Time to Think is always painfully cheesy to me), but I gotta say I really like the album as a whole now.

  22. Did a personal top ten favorite albums ever and Street Legal sits pretty at number 6. It is a divider I agree but if you love Street Legal the love goes deep! I enjoy your blog.

  23. There are some amazing songs on this album: Changing of the Guard, New Pony, Senor, Where Are You Tonight...

    But then there's that one song that comes on and just ruins the whole experience for me: the steaming pile of dung that is "Is Your Love in Vain?":

    "Can you cook and sew/ make flowers grow/ can you understand my pain?" Really, Bob? It's almost as bad as his right-wing rants about Arab sheiks "deciding America's future from Amsterdam to Paris" during his Christian phase...

  24. Put me down as another Street-Legal lover. It sure seems to be the album that divides Dylan fans, and I have never figured out why. I think there is some amazingly good song writing in S-L, and I love the sound. I also think it is one of his most biographical albums. Post-divorce pain and turmoil, late 30s self-questioning, mid-life crisis, bitter regret and tentative hope, desperate search for meaning, pre-''conversion' crisis - I hear all of that, and much more besides, on Street-Legal. An amazing masterwork, in my view. The downest and dirtiest of all Bob's albums.

  25. I can't separate this album from the summer it first came out, which was a very transitional time for me, full of stops and starts and confusion and elation. In fact, when memories of that summer in Houston became too painful, I put this record away and didn't listen to it for twenty years or so. I "rediscovered" it recently, and while it still brings back some painful memories, I have a bit more distance and can enjoy it again.

    But I agree "Can you cook and sew/ make flowers grow/ can you understand my pain?" is a bad start to a horrid song. That's what's so great about an iPod, those songs I can't stand can disappear from the album...

  26. Is anybody else struck by the Tarot references in "Changing of the Guards" ? e.g.
    "Fortune calls"
    "last deal gone down"
    "the tower"
    "cold-blooded moon"
    "Jupiter and Apollo" (multi-layered this:father/son, god of power/god of music)
    "marked your cards"
    and finally the clincher of death retreating between the King and the Queen of Swords.

    This suggests one of the many strands in this song being about the transition from a pagan/esoteric framework to christian appocalypse mediated by a prophet (could be Christ if you read "rolling rocks" in the tomb context).

    Perhaps the most far fetched (but intriguing) reading is of the "beloved maid with the ebony face" which could (at one extreme) be viewed as a reference to the "black madonna" (cf "two-wheeled gypsy queen") which is sometimes viewed as an early pagan symbol with obvious links to christian iconography.

    This could of course all be rubbish but does add (for me) to the enjoyment of a great track

  27. Well, that certainly gives me something else to consider next time I play the album. Thanks Noel!

  28. PS I forgot to mention "Wheels of Fire" being identified with the "Wheel of Fortune" in Tarot as being a force that interferes with the progress of the Fool (Dylan).

    PPS I have constructed an even more elaborate analysis which needs echos from "Bringing it all back home" to analyse the meaning of Eden (and its relationship to the "Circus sands") and Mr Tanbourine Man and the Fool (Dylan) leading us to the dance, but I shan't bore you with this.

    If you want to play, consider the chorus of the first track in Infidels "Jokerman dance to the nightingale's tune" and consider the possibility that the "black nightingale" was Nina Simone".

    The fun is endless!

  29. STREET LEGAL IS THE GREATEST BOB DYLAN ALBUM EVER !!!!!!.Changing of the Gaurd,Love in vein,Journey through,Baby please stop crying are CLASSICS and far outweigh anything he did before or after.True Love tends to Forget is without doubt his best song written.I have listened and studied BOB for many a year and have yet to find a better written,played or produced album.This was also a time when he was the business in concert-these songs translated wonderfully to the stage.The concert at Blackbushe was without doubt his greatest ever performance and it strongly featured most of the songs from the album.Plus...he had a decent and in fact terrific rock voice at this point.
    I doubt there will ever be a better album by any artist.
    Tony (Scunthorpe)

  30. There are a few annoying songs on this album but the good ones are AWESOME. "Changing of the guards", "New Pony", "Señor", "Where are you tonight" are fantastic. Some of the lyrical images that he presents here are among his best. "Can you tell me where we're heading, Lincoln's County Road or Armageddon", that line alone is worth the price of a whole album.