Street Legal

Bob Dylan

Columbia, 1978

REVIEW BY: Paul King


Coming, as it does, after the creative peaks of Blood On The Tracks and Desire but before the evangelical sermonising of Slow Train Coming, the Street Legal album is an often overlooked chapter in Dylan’s recorded oeuvre. This is something of a shame because it's actually a pretty good record in its own right. Recorded and mixed in just a couple of weeks with essentially the same band that featured on the Bob Dylan At Budokan live album, Street Legal is heavy with the dense wordplay and apocalyptic, biblical imagery that we’ve come to expect from Dylan at his best.

The album’s opening salvo is the excellent “Changing Of The Guards,” a song that appears to be a summing-up of Dylan’s own musical career up to that point. The first clue is the song’s opening exclamation of “Sixteen years!” which is roughly how long it had been since Dylan began his musical career, at least publicly, with the release of his debut album in 1962. This may just be coincidence of course, but lines like “Fortune calls / I stepped forth from the shadows, to the marketplace” and cryptic references to “wheels on fire” certainly seem to betray the song’s autobiographical intentions. Additionally, its hauntingly dynamic chord progression and memorable saxophone refrain serve to make “Changing Of The Guards” as strong an album opener as any Dylan produced during the Seventies.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Next up is the strident riffing of “New Pony,” a brazenly erotic and lascivious song hiding behind a well-worn horse metaphor. It’s a song that’s strangely full of foreboding and malevolence. Throughout the track, a trio of female backing vocalists repeat the question “how much longer?”, giving the piece a sinister air of urgency and serving to heighten its general aura of uneasiness.

Unfortunately track three, “No Time To Think,” is something of a letdown after the potency of the previous two numbers. Lyrically it’s very good indeed but the song’s slight melody along with its excessive length, means that it actually works better as poetry on the page than it does as a song.

Things get back on track again with “Baby, Stop Crying" though, a song in which Dylan plays the role of consoler to a despairing woman, somewhat alarmingly asking for a pistol in the opening verse, claiming he "can't tell right from wrong." Interestingly, the lyrics are allegedly inspired by Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down Blues.” In fact, the influence of the legendary Delta Blues musician looms large over much of Street Legal, with Dylan copping lyrics from several of Johnson’s songs and dropping them into his own compositions throughout the album. Of course, Robert Johnson had long been a musical hero of Dylan’s but his influence has seldom been as explicitly conspicuous in Dylan’s work, especially lyrically, as it is on this record.

Of all the tracks on Street Legal though, perhaps the most well known is “Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power).” Personally, I’ve always felt that there’s something lacking from this song, which prevents it from being a totally successful piece. It tends to idle lackadaisically rather than grab the listener and I can’t help finding myself distracted and taken out of the mood of the song by the slightly comical way in which Dylan sings the word “señor.”

The album comes to a close on a high note however with “Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).” It’s a memorable song with a solid musical arrangement and some fantastic lyrical couplets, like the bravely resolute “ In that last hour of need / We entirely agreed / Sacrifice was the code of the road” or the unflinchingly confessional “I fought with my twin / That enemy within / ’til both of us fell by the way.”

All in all, Street Legal is an overlooked gem in Bob Dylan’s body of work from the Seventies. Sure, it might not quite hit the rarefied heights of Blood On The Tracks or Desire, but there’s still more than enough good art to be found amongst its nine tracks to warrant greater attention from Dylan fans.

Rating: B

User Rating: A-



© 2008 Paul King and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia, and is used for informational purposes only.