Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

20. Street-Legal (1978)

After the lean, painful BOTT, then the gear change into the vibrant exoticism of Desire, with Street-Legal Bob subverts our expectations once again by putting out an album of slickly produced pop-rock.  It was recorded in California over the course of a single week on a mobile unit, against a backdrop of divorce, a fierce custody battle, a world tour and the editing of the film Renaldo & Clara. As a consequence of the hurried recording and limiting production factors, the album was criticised upon release for it's under-rehearsed and rather muddy sound.  Street Legal was remixed and remastered in 1999, but the version included in the BobBox is the original 1978 mix, albeit in remastered form.

Opener Changing of the Guards slowly fades in, the first words "Sixteen years" referencing his time in the business so far, and then - what's this? - echoed by a gospel trio?  Is this going to be another Self Portrait?  Backing singers Carolyn Dennis (who would much later marry Dylan), Jo Ann Harris and Helena Springs crop up throughout the album, and for the most part are an enjoyable addition, here providing this Tom Petty-ish number with some uplifting call-and-response.  Another, more surprising element is the saxophone, which on Changing of the Guards is employed between verses in place of a chorus, adding to the heartland rock feel.  The lyrics are cryptic and dense, with prominent biblical and tarot references.  It's a strong opening track, but like several songs on SL it doesn't quite fulfill its promise, and fades out again without reaching any kind of resolution.

New Pony contains double entendres galore and some fairly nasty lyrics aimed at ex-wife Sara. As a mean divorce song it works quite well, although the repetitive bvs are unsubtle and quickly become annoying.  The sax break at the end is meatier than than the rather weedy sax in the previous track, and the guitar riff is a beefy, sexy blues.  The song as a whole makes for a simple palate cleanser between two lengthy, lyric-packed ones.  The first couple of times I heard the eight minute-plus No Time To Think it outstayed its welcome pretty fast, but it's now one of my favourite songs on SL.  The mixture of a trad-folk meter with gospel backing vocals, plus twin fiddles, electric guitar, rolling piano and Bob at his wordiest sounds like a nightmare on paper, and indeed it took some getting used to, but now I wouldn't have it any other way.  I don't know about 'no time to think', but he certainly hasn't left any room to; his mind is crowded with dozens of concerns, which spew out over 18 bewildering, cramped verses, each with its own set of internal (and often shoehorned) rhymes.  If you're not keen on this song, I urge you to google the lyrics, turn it up loud and SING it.  It'll leave you breathless by the end (especially if you try to do the bvs as well), but I guarantee you'll have a blast and hear it in a whole new way.  In fact I now can't listen to it without doing this, so I'm sure it won't be long before the lyric sheet becomes superfluous.

For me, the ballad Baby Stop Crying is the weakest song on Street-Legal.  The verses are good, but the repetitive chorus, endlessly echoed by the backing singers, is atrocious, making it drag terribly over the five minute running time.  If only this woman had pulled herself together at Bob's initial request, it could all have been over in less than a minute.  Musically it's a pleasant tune, furnished with shimmering guitar and wine-bar sax.  The lyrics are irritatingly self-pitying, but not quite as bad as those belonging to next track Is Your Love In Vain?   After a lovely Stax-y intro where Steve Douglas' saxophone is joined by Steve Madaio's trumpet, Dylan proceeds to whinily quiz his lover over the worthiness of her adoration, before deciding that yes, "...I'll take a chance, I will fall in love with you", followed by a quick enquiry about her domestic abilities. Yuk.  Good luck with that, dear.

Things are pulled back from the brink of vainglorious smuggery by the beautiful SeƱor (Tales of Yankee Power).  Where during the previous track Bob was pleading for acceptance, here he pleads with the titular Lord on a journey filled with uncertainty and dread. Whether the song's subject matter is God, war, the nuclear threat, drugs, death, none of these or all of them, the protagonist's questions go unanswered.  Piano, organ and that sax again move at a stately pace, and there's a neat little 80s guitar solo just before the final verse (well, the 80s really began in 1978 didn't they?).  The backing vocals aren't put too high in the mix, and their mournfulness adds to the sense of loss and hopelessness.

It's immediately followed by the gradual fading in of True Love Tends to Forget, a tender but unremarkable ballad.  Street Legal is quite heavy on plodders, and after four in a row the country gospel of We Better Talk This Over comes as a welcome change with its tambourine and cowboy guitar.  Fairly mundane breakup lyrics are bolstered by better ones such as "The vows that we kept are now broken and swept, 'neath the bed where we slept" and "Eventually we'll hang ourselves on all this tangled rope", then he spoils it again in the final verse by rhyming 'magician' with' transition'.

Dylan has often topped and tailed his albums with high-quality corkers, and the strong top of Changing of the Guards is equalled by the dynamic tail of Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat).  The dark heat could apply to any number of things including drug dependency and of course his marriage.  I can detect the beginnings of acceptance amid the often inscrutable language, and the music is buoyant and optimistic.  There's joy and relief in the last verse, especially "I can't believe it, I can't believe I'm alive", but this is immediately tempered by the longing for Sara that still lingers.  The gospel "hey-hey-heys" bring the album to a positive end, helped along by a great guitar outro that puts me in mind of McCartney's bit of the outgoing solo at the end of, erm, The End.

One of the criticisms levelled at SL was that it has a glitzy "Las Vegas" sound.  I disagree with this claim; although Bob employs a polished pop-rock band to back him up, I can't hear the gaudiness that these terms imply, and I suspect that this description is based more on Dylan's touring get-up at the time, i.e. the startling white outfit on the back cover of the record (with a startling moose knuckle) than the actual sound.  The silly "Vegas" tag and the original muddy mix aside, I can understand the lack of love in some quarters for this record; for one thing his voice has begun to show signs of deterioration and is now more nasal then ever.  The music sometimes works against the lyrical content; there's often a tug-of-war between the spiritual backing vocals and the sleazy sax and guitar, and these combined can overwhelm Bob's words.  His attempt at a new style reflects the themes of change and searching that run through the album, and although to begin with I found it a bit bland and samey, repeated listening revealed its character.  Even the under-rehearsed, over-employed backing vocals grew on me (these were reportedly inspired by Bob Marley's I-Threes, whom Dylan had seen in the UK and greatly admired).

Maybe if Street-Legal had been produced with the spacious guitar and subtle rhythm section of BOTT, or perhaps the earthy muscle of The Band, it would have been better received, but as well as finding the poppier aspect a refreshing change after the emotionally wearing BOTT/Desire/Hard Rain era,  I've come to enjoy and admire it for what it is: a collection of well-written songs with mostly strong melodies, engaging lyrics and enjoyable playing.  So, business as usual then.*

*well alright, no harmonica :)

*****BobBox price check***** - £99.99 (free postage)
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All prices correct on 24/06/2015

1 comment:

  1. My "core" knowledge of Dylan ends with Blood On The Tracks. These pieces are showing my what I have been missing/ignored. Must do something about. Keep writing and making me realise what I have missed, and therefore why I SHOULD be investing forthwith.