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Street-Legal
Bob Dylan

Columbia PC 35453
Released: June 1978
Chart Peak: #11
Weeks Charted: 23
Certified Gold: 6/27/78

Bob DylanIt's a new Bob Dylan album and you can't help thinking about the, uh, you know, the d-i-v-o-r-c-e. So, hell, let's talk about it. A high-price Boston analyst at a medium-price cocktail party once told me two things that seem to apply here: there is no way to go through a divorce without getting depressed, whether one consciously recognizes it or not, and artists often use their depression more creatively than they use their happier moments. If the man is right, then the ingredients might be right to make this new Dylan album a powerhouse. And it is. The further implication in this, for those who like their logic tied up in a square knot, is that Dylan not only figured to be down a bit when he conceived and executed Street-Legal, but is indeed an artist. And he is.

Those who used to yip for him to get back to protest songs, topical songs, to "regain his social conscience," were of course looking for politics rather than art. Well. Sticking to craftsmanship and politics would work for some people (although I believe it actually was involved in the death of a few of our troubadours), but Dylan has had, as he has been trying to tell people, work to do. In the very old days, some attention was paid to those who influenced him -- various bluesmen, various poets, and Woody, of course, but damned few outright politicians. Like others who started out as journalists but were really literati all along, Dylan probably sensed the trap of topicality, the unreliability of headlines as a basis for literature.

Bob Dylan - Street Legal
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
And so he moved on, not exactly in a straight, sure line. In Street-Legal he hasn't arrived yet -- hasn't, in fact, got the line entirely free of wobbles -- but he's mixed content and style into a fine stew, making observations that are at once general and specifically yours, mine, and the other guy's, all, on the surface, different. Doing it with the old Dylan flair, too. "Betrayed by a kiss, on a cool night of bliss/ In the valley of the missing link"... well, it could be archeologists having a lovers quarrel in Olduvai Gorge, if that's your thing. Other lines just chill your bones: "Lovers obey you/ But they cannot sway you/ They're not even sure you exist." You've known the feeling, I'm sure. Regarding the blues influence, "New Pony" harks back to that structurally, and if you want to, you can also hark it back to the divorce, obliquely: "Sometimes I wonder what's goin' on with Ms. X [Ex?|/ She got such a sweet disposition, I never know what the poor girls gonna do to me next."

For there are two things missing from Street-Legal, two characteristic Bob Dylan things. One is the squeaky harmonica, which would be at odds with the smoother sound that prevails here (the old one-take sloppiness is missing, too, this being one of the most carefully produced Dylan albums yet, which stifles spontaneity some but not entirely), and the other is the old off-beat humor Dylan used to chuck in there at odd moments. On the contrary, this one has more moments like, "You can't find no salvation/ And no expectations/ Any time, any place, anywhere...." Or "Horseplay and disease/ Are killing me by degrees/ While the law looks the other way."

As for the world situation, he looks at an era (just once) rather than at the latest thing in Newsweek and asks -- in a song that suggests he's read Carlos Casteneda -- "Señor, can you tell me where we're headin'?/ Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?" Again, if you're a specifics freak and don't mind how trivial your specifics get, you can read an esoteric richness into that: the Lincoln County War was a contributing factor, you might say, in the life of Billy the Kid, the subject of the movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which Dylan appeared and for which he wrote the music. I tell you, if A. J. Weberman, the guy who used to analyze Dylan's garbage, is still cross-indexing Dylan's lyrics, he's going to have a field day with this album.

What else you have with it depends on what you want, to some extent. Unless what you want is humor and a squeaky harmonica. Listen lightly and you hear a new sound -- not radical, but different and rather nice. Listen more intently and you find ideas about that old favorite, the human condition, and a richness of expression borne on one of the bona fide styles of our time... though you'll still be bothered by the excess of chorus. But if he had given it to us raw, some of it might have bitten back. He knows what he's doing even when he doesn't know what he's doing. That's one definition of an artist

- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 10/78.

Bonus Reviews!

The most prophetic of rock's superstars delivers his most powerful album in some time. Dylan's vocals are sounding forceful and emotion-packed while his writing is among his strongest in terms of precision and lyrical depth. With a praiseworthy tour behind him, Dylan is on the verge of creative renaissance, even though his popularity really never subsided. But in terms of conviction, he is back with the incisive lyrics and vocals that made him spokesman for a generation of '60s youth. Backing Dylan is a superlative band that includes percussion, violin, mandolin and trumpet in addition to the rhythm section. The use of female background vocalists exceeds past efforts, as the trio of ladies adds tasty treatments to much of the material. Best cuts: "Changing Of The Guards," "Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)," "Baby Stop Crying," "Is Your Love In Vain," "True Love Tends To Forget," "No Time To Think."

- Billboard, 1978.

Inveterate rock and rollers learn to find charm in boastful, secretly girl-shy adolescents, but boozy-voiced misogynists in their late thirties are a straight drag. This divorcée sounds overripe, too in love with his own self-generated misery to break through the leaden tempos that oppress his melodies, devoid not just of humor but of lightness -- unless, that is, he intends his Neil Diamond masquerade as a joke. Because he's too shrewd to put his heart into genuine corn, and because his idea of a tricky arrangement is to add horns or chicks to simplistic verse-and-chorus abcb structures, a joke is what it is. But since he still commands remnants of authority, the joke is sour indeed. C+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Street Legal is a tough uncompromising album. Recorded at Rundown Studios in Santa Monica the master tapes seem to have much the same balance and feel as the later albums but CD mastering seems to have robbed them of any real dynamic power.

The results sound only a little better than a cassette copy, lacking life and any sense of excitement or urgency. Backing vocals, though clearly annunciated, simply do not cut through the typical Dylan arrangements. "New Pony," a song full of remarkable innuendo, should slowly rock and crash its way along but the muffled effect steals the bite in lead guitar and vocals while bass blubbers beneath. Any spark this recording should have had seems damped down.

- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.

Dylan's released a lot of recordings over a career now spanning more than two decades, and it would be unfair to expect them all to be good -- this one's not. The addition of a female chorus detracts rather than adds to the proceedings, and the band plays like their last gig was a Salvation Army affair. The sound is appropriate to the contents: compressed, muddy, distorted, and frequently harsh in the vocals. D-

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

Using a big band assembled for a world tour, Dylan presents a group of songs, some of which are as imagistic -- and as bitter -- as his mid-'60s material. Particularly notable are the tone poem "Changing of the Guards" and the desperate but moving "Senor." * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

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