Bob Dylan – Street Legal
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I had never paid much attention to Street Legal, and not just for the obvious reason that it stank. Lots of Dylan records have a cheesy whiff, but why plump for an album as confused and confusing as Street over the monumental, shaken-by-the-spirit howler Saved? But over the last month (proof that Dylan records have a life of their own) three things pushed Street back into rotation. A late night appearance by the cacophonic proto-Oasis bawl and sneer of “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)” prompted an overdue this-isn’t-entirely-crap-who-knew? double take; the sorely missed Chris Whitley covered “Changing of the Guard” on his second posthumous release, finally inflecting it with the pathos it deserved the first time around. And finally, only a couple of days ago, I got hold of the remaster. Vastly improved mixing can’t turn a deeply mediocre album into a great one, but it renders audible the album’s competing, conflicting, contradictory urges of Dylan’s last album before the spiritual surrender of the Christian period—Dylan v. Dylan.
The dire sanctimony that mars the Christian albums (and makes Slow Train Coming’s apocalyptic certainties superior to Shot of Love’s insipid sermonizing) first rears its head on Street Legal. “Is Your Love in Vain” is a sententious, clumsy, Protestant-style hymn. Discounting for hindsight, listening to Dylan’s pseudo-spiritual platitudes is as weird and off-putting as hearing the garbage man sing “I Feel Pretty” while hoisting a trash can.
And if the lyrical dullness of “Love in Vain” leaves any doubt as to Dylan’s incipient religiosity, “No Time to Think” dispels them with a mystic-gospel chant that gives the lie to the obscurantist lyrics of disillusionment and perdition: “Paradise, sacrifice, mortality, reality / But the magician is quicker and his game / Is much thicker than blood and blacker than ink / And there’s no time to think.” On the leaden refrain, encircled by the omnipresent chorus girls, Dylan sounds frighteningly glad to have his choices made for him, but the song is almost redeemed by the sheer energy of his phrasing as he manhandles the awkward verses. Dylan didn’t sing this wholeheartedly and unadorned again until Infidels, but on Street he’s repeatedly stapled down by a battery of hired-gun chorus girls that italicize every second phrase like a sophomore with a highlighter.
The best moments, (the classic-rock close of “We Better Talk This Over,” the randy surf-sax cockiness of “New Pony”) aim for a studio expansion of the meaty sound The Band gave Dylan on Before the Flood. But where The Band exuded military firepower and discipline, this band is shambolic and provisional, mercenaries hired for a hit and run mission. The rumor is that when he recorded Street Dylan had a thing for the colossal arrangements of Neil Diamond, including the sizeable chorus line, a conjecture borne out by the more successful homage of the following year’s Live at Budokan. On Street the chorus sings with more brio than specificity, so under-rehearsed they add a novel tension and unwonted immediacy to the dirty riff of “New Pony,” unpredictably entering singly, not at all, or en masse for the “How much longer?” refrain, repeatedly fucking it up despite the song’s simplicity. Persistent listens conjure the image of Bob waving the girls in and out of the larger confusion of an unwieldy band playing unfamiliar songs: Dylan conducting and creating the songs as they occur to him.
The album stands or falls, in many ways, on the success of “Baby Stop Crying.” Dylan has sugar-coated misogyny with vulnerability before (e.g. “Just Like a Woman”), but this is something else again: Dylan as a gunslinging John Wayne-type tough guy (“Go get me my pistol, babe / Honey, I can’t tell right from wrong”) stonily impervious to anything except his “babe’s” tears. Combined with the awfulness of “Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow / Do you understand my pain?” (“Is Your Love in Vain?”), Street paints a picture of Dylan as self-absorbed curmudgeon, borrowing Neil Diamond’s sexual politics as well as his orchestration. But Zimmerman is always performing Dylan, and his congested sneer may conceal the tongue in his cheek, particularly on the quasi-kiss-off “True Love Tends to Forget,” which reads a bit like Dylan’s own self-help motto.
Street Legal finds Dylan at a crossroads in a roadside circus, juggling lyrical potency with late 70s sexual swagger, while his lover the trapeze artist makes out with the bearded lady behind the duck shoot. It’s a mess of divergent ideas and urges, exemplified by the magnificent cover, featuring Dylan wearing Mick Jagger’s dress pants, peering out into a barren, overexposed alleyway to see if the coast is clear, wedding ring prominently displayed, and carrying his jacket like he left his mistress’ house in a hurry.