Personal thoughts on Bob Dylan's "Street-Legal" (1978)


4 Abr 2012, 17:26

Conversion to Christianity in the late '70s was an important step in Dylan's life & career. Having dealt with a years-long marital crisis and the failure of his lengthy film "Renaldo & Clara", he finally came to peace with himself by finding faith. 1978's "Street-Legal", however, was the predecessor to his trilogy of Christian music (comprised of "Slow Train Coming", "Saved" and the overlooked "Shot of Love"), and has caused massive dispute among both Dylan fans and academics. I've personally always been fond of it (after all, the album kicks off with the words "Sixteen years"). It's unarguably an important, intriguing document of the despair ravaging his heart and mind at the time, and the somewhat cryptic yet expressionistic lyrics bundling the resulting feelings, ideas and emotions give the record, laden with hurt and humiliation, a strong relisten value.

The album's prominent flaw is generally considered the relatively weak production of the original release. "Street-Legal" also stands out for the intense use of a large backing band and vocalists, which I would say is Dylan's, whose marriage had reached the point of complete collapse, attempt to escape from a certain solitude. Instruments such as saxophone can be heard on the album. The very pop-influenced powerful sound of the record contrasts heavily with the lyrics, filled with Biblical allusions, sexism, and misery. I find the writing highly focused and meticulous - almost as good as anything he penned in the '60s.

It should be noted Dylan was still in brief relationships at the time. According to a rumor, in early 1977 he was acquainted with a lady named Malka Marom who, along with Bob's children, was present when he hit Sara in the face (which, I suppose, was the stunning culmination of their years-long "feud"), and later, when he began writing songs which would be recorded for "Street-Legal", he was with Faridi McFee, who was actually the babysitter working for both him and Sara. By that point, their divorce had already been officially finalized. I will have to agree the music on the album somewhat suffers from the excessive instrumentation (especially drums, which I consider a major issue with "Infidels" as well), but it also gives the record a somewhat ominous vibe, notably on tracks such as "Changing of the Guards" and "Where Are You Tonight?" - both are played in a very upbeat manner, yet the lyrics are almost grievous. That is why the album is so eccentric (very appropriate for an artist like Dylan).

Looking back at his earlier work, "Blood on the Tracks" - an earlier account of Dylan's heartache and inner affliction - is conclusively quite bittersweet. The last song on the album, "Buckets of Rain", is almost a perfect summary of the entire record, which is probably his strongest post-'60s outing. This is where his ambivalent feelings become clear (same goes for "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome..."). However, on "Street-Legal", which is quite cryptic compared to the straight-forward and obviously outstanding "Blood on the Tracks", the haunted, shameless Dylan blatantly comes off as much more cynical, guilefully and carefully embracing humiliation or neglect - his exasperation is in high gear and he seems to have no problem directing his frustration towards women and his general surroundings. "Come over here pony, I wanna climb up one time on you" ("New Pony"), is a curious example of how his distress would translate into a song at such a critical time in his life, when I believe he was questioning the purpose of his existence, and his worthiness as both a lover and artist.

I would like to point out that "Infidels" is, to me, the album where the baffled, lost Dylan - gone through a brief period of wallowing in Christian beliefs - has found all the answers he seems to be looking for on "Street-Legal". This is also why, I presume, he was able to properly start experimenting with the sound and profile of his work, which obviously led to one of his oddest albums, the shining turd you can't help but love - "Empire Burlesque".

It's the song "Baby Stop Crying" where Dylan displays his willingness to be a protectful and comforting guardian to a lady who has suffered hurt, yet the lines "Go get me my pistol, babe / honey, I can’t tell right from wrong" make it clear even such intentions would lead to terrible conclusions. Dylan, while working on "Street-Legal", found great solace from God, and despite losing a considerable portion of his fanbase because of that, it was a fortunate, logical move for him. Obviously there are multiple hints at his interest in Christian teachings and the Bible on "Street-Legal" as well - the severely apocalyptic undertones present on the record are quite powerful.

I've always seen "Street-Legal" as an important and highly compelling, profound album, and it would rank as my second or third favorite from his studio catalogue. Dylan, "betrayed by a kiss on a cool night of bliss", has never sounded so menacing yet phlegmatic at the same time, and the pathos of the sound and the almost lurid landscape painted with and by the words, create a remarkable combination (intentional or not..) that - yes, makes you crave for a hot shower - but at the same time knocks you right in the head, as Dylan's music always does, at least to an attentive, focused listener. I would strongly recommend anyone who dislikes the album to reevaluate it, forget its aesthetic weaknesses, and link its obtrusive content to Dylan's personal life at the time. Most attention should be paid to "Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)", given the fact Dylan has often ended his albums with the song he considers most valuable or important. Boy, is he sly in that one.

Written by an Italian poet from the 13th... I mean, Ralf Sauter

Bob Dylan
Street Legal


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