There are no other Bob Dylan albums quite like it.
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.