There are many Great Bob Dylan Albums. There are at least as many Terrible Bob Dylan Albums. Then there’s Street Legal–a Weird Bob Dylan Album.

Like many fans and critics, may think simply think it’s terrible, the beginning of a long, fallow period following the triple whammy of Blood on the Tracks, the Rolling Thunder Revue, and Desire and lasting arguably until 1997’s Time Out of Mind (depending on the esteem in which you hold Oh Mercy! and the pair of solo acoustic folk albums he put out in the early ‘90s).

If you share this commonly held opinion, you are wrong. Not necessarily about the album being bad – hey, music is subjective, and I wouldn’t blame you for disliking an album that contains “Baby, Stop Crying,” arguably the most obnoxious single Dylan has ever released. But to lump it in with the musical banalities and one-note preaching of the Christian period that immediately followed it and the rushed hackwork Dylan put out throughout the ‘80s makes little sense. In fact, Street Legal is perhaps the most complex and mystifying entry in Dylan’s catalog, and thus ultimately one of the most rewarding – not to mention one of the most unabashedly tuneful.

1978 was a time of great transition for Dylan. At the end of the Rolling Thunder period, he had just finalized his contentious divorce from Sara Dylan (he allegedly had an album’s worth of close-to-the-bone songs about the ordeal ready to go prior to the recording of Street Legal, but they have yet to be released or even bootlegged). Within the next year, he would be born again, singing “Gotta Serve Somebody” at the Grammys.

It would be tempting to call Street Legal a transitional album, but it has little in common musically with what immediately preceded or followed it. Lacking the exotic acoustic feel of Desire or the sterile, stark arrangements on Slow Train Coming, it marks the time when Dylan decided for exactly one album to become a big band, Vegas-style adult pop crooner (well two, if you count 1979’s At Budokan, the commonly reviled live album on which Dylan rearranged selections from his back catalog in a similar fashion). “Like A Rolling Stone”-style jangly guitars and Hammond organs frolic freely in the mix alongside strings, decidedly non-funky horns and a chorus of overused female R&B backup singers. Dylan had dramatically changed his sound before and would do it again, but the Street Legal sound is singular in his catalog in that he had never made such a radical overhaul and then almost immediately moved on.

The dense AM radio instrumentation is a big reason why the album has long been critically overlooked – not necessarily because of the arrangements themselves, but because the big band was poorly recorded, with a notoriously muddy sound on the original release. Subsequent remasters cleaned up the mix to the point that it’s now arguably one of the most pristine-sounding Dylan albums available. So if you’ve only heard the original mix, do yourself a favor and pick up a remaster RIGHT NOW. You may be shocked and delighted at how well you can hear the cascading horn riffs on “Changing of the Guards” and “No Time to Think,” the flitting, twangy guitars and honky tonk piano on “We Better Talk This Over” and Dylan’s sneering, creepy vocal on “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power).”

The arrangements really are gorgeous if you have any appreciation at all for this sort of ornate pop music sheen, and aren’t all that far removed from something like “Just Like a Woman.” There’s virtually nothing that “rocks” in the traditional sense beyond the token dirty electric blues “New Pony” (which Jack White’s godawful side project the Dead Weather godawfully covered). But Dylan isn’t trying to rock on Street Legal.

Lyrically and thematically, Street Legal is roughly divided into two halves: cranky, bitchy songs about Dylan’s divorce, and long, convoluted epics that take obscure Dylanesque wordplay to a whole new level. The former half has caught the most flack over the years, some of it warranted. Specifically, charges of sexism are often levied against songs like “Baby, Stop Crying” and “Is Your Love in Vain?” The latter is downright repugnant: “Can you cook and sew/ Make flowers grow/ Do you understand my pain?” sounds like something that could come out of Reddit’s darkest MRA depths. Moreover, the album marks the beginning of the permanent deterioration of Dylan’s voice into an increasingly craggly growl, which make his lyrics sound like the ranting of a mean, bitter old man.

Fortunately, the two-song lull in the middle of the album is at least partially redeemed by another pair of divorce songs. Much more palatable, “True Love Tends to Forget” soars and glistens while “We Better Talk This Over” kicks with an authentic twang not heard from Dylan since Nashville Skyline. It also helps that they strike a tone of acceptance and kindness. For every “You been two-faced/ You been double-dealing,” there’s an “It’d be great to cross paths in a day and a half/ Look at each other and laugh.”

Street Legal’s other half is much less controversial. Even the album’s most resolute detractors will admit to the virtues of opener “Changing of the Guards,” to date the only album cut to have appeared on any of Dylan’s innumerable greatest hits compilations. Musically it’s the most ostensibly Dylanesque tune here with its wailing organ and verse–verse-verse folk song structure. Lyrically, it shares much in common with other album tracks that continue the exploration of traveling and the exotic that Dylan began on Desire, but replaces the clear narrative style of that album with impenetrable wordplay, oblique religious and mystical references and at least one song whose chorus consists of Dylan shouting strings of seemingly random, unrelated words at the top of his lungs (“No Time to Think”).

Dylan is famous for lyrics that defy straightforward interpretation, but these wordy songs make “Visions of Johanna” sound like “Wild Thing.” No set of Dylan songs cries out more for hardcore Dylanologist interpretation, none with more fascinating layers of “what the hell is he talking about?” What’s more, songs like “Changing of the Guards” and surging, triumphant closer “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)”—the latter perhaps one of the most unfairly unsung songs in Dylan’s catalog—do all that while maintaining a higher level of energy and pure melodicism than Dylan had displayed in years. These facts alone my not quite make Street Legal a Great Bob Dylan Album, considering the competition. But its critical dismissal is criminal; there are no other Bob Dylan albums quite like it.

4 Comments

  1. Gavin

    February 17, 2021 at 3:51 am

    The distaste over “Can you cook and sew…” is misplaced. They are earnest words, grasping for qualities he appreciates perhaps more now that he’s lost them. The whole song is heartfelt and none of it deserves criticism. Sure, you *can* interpret them in a chauvinist way, but that’s either trying too hard or not trying hard enough.

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  2. Anonymous

    February 17, 2021 at 4:18 am

    Hi, your 1st paragraph is a joke, as many terrible as great albuns, i don´t know what albuns you´ve meant but you should listen again to those terrible ones. A lot of amazing albuns, including Street Legal, some others less better. Dylan catalogue is amazing and if you add the bootleg series, the man is in a class by it´s own.

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  3. Terry

    February 17, 2021 at 9:16 am

    I love this album, even none of the melodies have been borrowed.
    I agree some of the lyrics are sexist,more so now, but musically still quite strong,but not obnoxious.
    I think some people forget what Bob has to compete with in his catalogue, most artistes never achieve anything close to changing of the guards, senior, no time to think or where are you tonight in their whole career sand would give their eye teeth to have written any of the other songs on this album.
    Dylans second or third string work is better than many others who would just love to have one of these songs in their Canon.

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  4. EDWARDO777

    February 18, 2021 at 3:08 am

    One thing I feel you left out by accident is the quality of his singing on this album. I would agree on “No Time To Think” more or less, although I don’t totally agree on it being ‘screaming;’ I think his singing is some of his most passionate and heartfelt. I remember reading some Beatles fans holding “Dig A Pony” in low regard for poor lyrics and just a throwaway until someone else chimed in the passion of the performance redeemed it beyond it’s worth.
    Like you said about the peak from 1974-76 of his studio albums, I think maybe, fortunately or unfortunately less than perfect circumstances in an artist’s personal life can be credited for some of their most passionate and assertive performances. When I first heard “New Pony” I wasn’t quite sure what to think this song was about. To Dylan the history of genres and artists that came before play a great deal into how he finds his style or feel for any particular album. It remains one of my favorite albums of his, along with ‘Hard Rain’ where his phrasing and the depth of his singing is some of the very best of his career. And I believe as we later saw with the release of “Trouble No More,” his Christian period, at least live performance wise, was also a continuation that started with the Rolling Thunder Tour. Most are of the opinion that the ’75 leg was far greater musically than the ’76 leg; professionally absolutely, yet in a way it seems a bit too slick which seems weird to say as I love Mick Ronson and thought his sound was all wrong, or maybe just the effects on the guitars.
    I prefer the ramshackle country punk of ‘Hard Rain’ through to the end of ‘Trouble No More.” To me, this era was a peak for Dylan as a singer; his phrasing during these years and the reach he was trying for and achieving regularly were a great success for him as a leader and member of a rock band.

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