30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
Solid Dylan album from the late 1970s, rather obscure.,
This review is from: Street-Legal (Audio CD)
STREET-LEGAL has a rather curious history among Dylan fans. Released in 1978, the album met rather mixed reviews, and the actual mix of the album displayed some real sound problems to the point of being very distracting. A lot of people at the time noticed, however, that Dylan was back to writing songs as dense lyrically as anything he wrote in the 1960s. Some critics felt he dressed the songs up in arrangements that worked against the lyrical structures of the song, and the songs would have been much better served had they not been recorded in "Las Vegas" arrangements. The overall critical consensus of the work, STREET LEGAL is a mixed bag, with the big band arrangements, backing vocals, and horn section working in opposition to the very dense lyrics that this album portrays. The critics have a heyday with Dylan's later output, and while some of it is dreck, a lot of it is underrated, even the generally panned 1980s output (mostly EMPIRE BURLESQUE), and this is no exception.
First thing's first, however. When STREET LEGAL was first issued, due to bad recording techniques, the mix was horrible. SL was mixed so badly it didn't even sound like a professional release. Then Don DeVito in 1999 remixed it using digital technology, which greatly enhanced the album. When Columbia remastered and released much of the Dylan catalogue in 2003 on the SACD CDs, STREET LEGAL benefitted the most of all, and now the initial mix problems have all been resolved. It sounds much better. The SACD technology is really amazing.
Second, STREET-LEGAL sports a strong selection of songs. I think had the arrangements been simplified and recorded more in the line of BLOOD, STREET-LEGAL would be considered an unqualified masterpiece. As it stands, there's as many people who think it's great and love the sound (I'm in that camp), as there are people who think it's a missed opportunity and find Dylan's Las Vegas style rather embarrassing. Just like DESIRE, STREET-LEGAL has a sound unlike any other studio album in Dylan's career, and I personally wouldn't have it anyway. The critically panned, generally forgotten or ignored LIVE AT BUDOKAN is he closest cousin in his canon tooSTREET-LEGAL, and was released around the same time.
Lyrically, the album foreshadows Dylan's conversion to Christianity. The lyrics are wild and searching, and though dense, it is clear Dylan is in a rather precarious position in his life, desiring peace and having none, and overall just searching for whatever meaning he can find. The last track is especially evident of Dylan's desire to be at peace with himself. Like most other musical artists worth studying, Dylan's music is an evolution, and it's quite enlightening to trace that evolution, for professionally and personally. The Christian Trilogy is a natural extension of the themes and questions Dylan is asking here, and feel very much like a continuation of this album.
The biggest problem with this album comes in the form of Dylan himself. When you've had a forty year career, as one other reviewer pointed out, lesser albums which would be studied had they been in another band's discography is pushed to the wayside to get to the real meat (with Dylan his 1960s output and his recent renaissance material). You could listen to all the officially released Dylan albums and not get finished in a day. With a body of work it tends to obscure the lesser gems, which is a shame because this is a particularly pleasing album.
Dylan's biggest pet peeve, or one of them anyway, is being pigeon-holed. Every album has its own atmosphere, and this is no exception. AMG says that "Coming off the twin peaks of BLOOD ON THE TRACKS and DESIRE," this album proved to be something of a disappointment. But I disagree. Personally, I prefer this over DESIRE. Although DESIRE may have hit bigger highs it also hit some really LOW lows, especially "Romance in Durango". It has the weirdest atmosphere of ANY Dylan album, and then this transform the world-music style of DESIRE into a very professional sounding big band release. While the album has been unfavorably compared to the worst elements in Neil Diamond and Elvis Presley's music, it is a very unique sound for Dylan, and not found on any of his other studio work (though breifly entertained on the double live album "Live at Budokan", which is, admittedly, an unmitigated disaster).
With this album, it starts out with one of his better latter songs, "Changing of the Guards". For this listener, it stands as the favorite Dylan song to sing along too, trying to reach the highs the backup vocals do. Although Dylan has often criticised for the female backup vocals, here it works. "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" is another track often cited as the best on here, and it does have a very enticing power too it, creating a very interesting atmosphere, moody and distant, with his lyrics transforming his voice into a snake-like monster, creating a spell for you. "Senor" is notable for being one of the few songs from the STREET LEGAL and DESIRE era that Dylan would still perform in concert in recent years.
"New Pony", "True Love Tends to Forget", and "Is Your Love in Vain" tends to drag the record down just a bit, but they're still strong tracks in their own right. I think they are just average songs, not great songs, and don't match the high that the other songs achieve. But after you listen to them again, you soon realise these tracks fit into the atmosphere Dylan wanted to create on this record. Taken out of this context, they seem somewhat strange, but with this it fits perfectly into the mood, although I'm not a real big fan of them. The best line is "I had a pony, her name is Lucifer, how much longer?", and "Is Your Love in Vain", which Mark Prindle follower George Starastin (who has since become a good reviewer in his own right), says this is the best track on here, though I tend to disagree. For all you blues fans and Led Zeppelin fans, Dylan sings about the juice running down his leg on "Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)", singing about the forbidden fruit.
For my money, the four key songs are "Changing of the Guard," "No Time to Think", "Senor", and "Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through the Dark Heat)?", and match anything else he's written in his post 1960s canon, and lyrically and thematically related to the Christian trilogy, especially the last song.
Overall, the album, like SLOW TRAIN COMING, has some great songs and then some just so-so songs. And while the so-so STREET-LEGAL songs are much better and work in the context of their prospective album than the average songs of SLC, STREET LEGAL started a trend of somewhat uneven albums from Dylan. But STREET LEGAL is still a great album, and very underrated. Any Dylan fan should have it in their collection. New people should probably start with some of his other records first, but this is a fine album in its own right.
After 1978, Dylan would convert to Christianity, and this was the last overtly secular recording he would do for six years. While it surprised a lot of fans, listening to STREET-LEGAL, the sign posts were there that he was searching, and given how much the Christian faith and Biblical morality informs so much of his work, it's not that surprising he turned to Christianity for answers.