Sunday, February 26, 2017
Bob Dylan - Street Legal (1978)
Bob Dylan’s 1978 album Street Legal reminds me of driving past a violent car accident; you can’t look away. I buried a lot of love to this tune of this album. The promise of the Rolling Thunder Revue tours turned to ashes in the mouth following a woozy, often tortured 1976 trek and Dylan’s epic vanity film project, the incomprehensible four hour Renaldo and Clara, crashed and burned before ever seeing widespread theatrical release; even a following cut to 2 hours failed to revive the film’s fortunes. The crowning indignity came with a bitter divorce and ensuing child custody battle with his wife Sara. Dylan rarely knew, to that point, such a low ebb in his personal and professional life and Street Legal’s nine songs reflect it. Don Devito’s production, an unenviable role in the best of times, resulted in the album sounding like someone placed pillows in front of the amplifiers. There’s no snap. Dylan drafted top flight sessions musicians like saxophonist Steve Douglas and bassist Jerry Scheff on bass guitar at enormous expense and to no audible benefit. There’s an air of desperation hanging over these songs, however; this is an album from someone backed in a corner and alive like a raw nerve ending. It doesn’t always work, it isn’t always pleasant, but you can’t stop listening.
“Changing of the Guard” raises more questions than it answers. Dylan is writing the songs alone this time out, unlike the preceding studio album Desire, but the influence of his co-lyricist on Desire, Jacques Levy, is still apparent. There’s a conscious artistry at work, however; the symbol laden lyric is open to a variety of interpretations (by 1978, it had been 16 years since Dylan’s debut album; the song’s opening lines refers to that exact time span), but the predominant themes revolve around a journey. The travel ends in personal apocalypse. Douglas’ horn touches on the song are largely superfluous, but the arrangement is otherwise inventive. The clanging, grinding blues “New Pony” needs a drummer who can actually swing and former King Crimson drummer Ian Wallace isn’t the guy. Dylan, however, rips out an inspired, practically lascivious vocal and Douglas’ saxophone leaves a memorable mark. The waltz-like arrangement of “No Time to Think” gives an appealing musical spin to one of Dylan’s darkest lyrics, but it runs on far too long and self-indulgence increasingly takes over.
“Baby Stop Crying” is nonsense. Dylan wails about bad men, paying his lady’s fare, and wild-eyed pistol wielding defense of turf over a serviceable arrangement and performance. Schmaltzy instrumentation weighs down the steady pacing of “Is Your Love in Your Vain?”during its first half, but melody and invention enlivens the playing during the song’s second half. Dylan gets good backing vocals on this track, but it can’t redeem the self-pitying and misogynist lyrics. “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” remains one of Street Legal’s more durable songwriting achievements. If there wasn’t a single redeemable moment elsewhere in the song, hearing Dylan’s pained anguish on the song’s payoff verse redeems everything. Listeners are treated, instead, to an evocative and towering performance. There are some great bridges in “True Love Tends to Forget”, but longtime listeners will detect Jacques Levy’s influence on the lyrics once again. It results in a lot of glossy couplets, but you’ll ultimately wonder if the songwriting adds up to any real significance. The album’s one unvarnished moment of spartan simplicity is “We Better Talk This Over”, a twangy blues with great crescendos and a loose, easygoing assurance throughout. Street Legal concludes with another extended song. The heavy handed title, “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)” can be heard multiple ways in light of upcoming career developments like his religious period, but sounds like a white-knuckled, impassioned requiem for his marriage and a midlife crisis cry for help. It ends Street Legal on a decidedly hopeless note with a clever musical arrangement undermined by lack of production attention. There are lots of reasons, however, to love an album. Street Legal is a poorly handled cathartic exercise, but its still bleeding wounds are impossible to ignore.