Review Summary: "Street Legal" has potential, but is ultimately too polished, inconsistent and often downright cheesy to become a good album.
While Bob Dylan’s golden years were in the sixties, many of his fans think that “Blood on the Tracks” is the greatest album he has ever cut. The following album, “Desire”, enjoyed a similar amount of praise although it was far, far inferior in my opinion. Any possible notions that Dylan might be commencing a second golden era were put down with 1976’s “Street Legal”.
”Street Legal” is what you call a mixed bag. Were this a track-by-track review, you would see basically the whole scale of ratings in use for the individual songs. The result is a deeply inconsistent album. “Desire” of the previous year saw Bob Dylan move into unfamiliar musical territory. He attempts this again with Street Legal, as his blues-rocked song is backed by a gospel choir, and full band of saxophones, violins and whatnot. Problems arise here. While the first song “Changing of the Guards” is a great song, using the choirs and a saxophone to aid the song, the choir becomes tiring as you listen to the album as a whole. In fact, you only need to get to track three, the annoying “No Time To Think”
before it becomes tiring. After you’ve heard Bob Dylan sing “Equality, liberty, humility, simplicity”
, all repeated by a gospel choir in an obnoxious fashion, you basically want to punch every member of said choir in the face. After the album is done playing, the choir has become so intolerable that it hurts even the songs that use it properly.
Bluntly put, “Street Legal” is a mess of an album. The good songs are bogged down by the rest and the soul sound of the album, that comes off as artificial more than anything. Most of these songs would reward from sparse instrumentations, but become too cluttered and cheesy after being subjected to Dylan’s full band. One example is the aforementioned “No Time To Think”
. The verses are great, but the chorus becomes annoying with the choir, especially as the song drags and drags for more than eight minutes. “Baby Stop Crying” suffers from the same problems but to a much lesser degree. It’s still overlong, but it’s a much better song than “No Time To Think”. Everything between track 1 and 6 is basically a dry spot. Tracks 2 to 4 are average or worse, and the abysmal “Is Your Love In Vain"” is a love ballad cheesier than that song Adam Sandler sings to his girl in “The Wedding Singer”. It’s one of the worst songs Bob Dylan has ever written. Musically poor, lyrically awful. Ugh.
What follows, however, is a true oasis among the lacklustres that clutter this album. The fairly stripped-down, acoustic “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” is a fantastic song and not just in the context of this album. It’s one of his very best songs ever really, and sounds refreshing among the overly-instrumented songs on the album.. On every song except this it seems that Bob Dylan has completely missed the principle of “beauty in simplicity”. The songs are very polished, packed with tasteless saxophones and backing vocals and their impact are greatly dulled as a result. The album picks up again on the closer “Where Are You Tonight" (Journey Through Dark Heat). It’s not at all spectacular, and not a stand out in Dylan’s great book of songs, but it’s a pretty great song nonetheless. It seems like a truly great song, however, with all the rubbish surrounding it. Get tracks 1, 6 and 9 and you won’t be missing out on anything.
Had Bob Dylan only shot the choir and cut half of the album (maybe 60-70% actually), he would have had the foundations of a great album on his hands. What we’re left with is a scattered mess of inconsistency, filled with lacklustres and potential winners covered in an artificial soul sound that quickly becomes unbearable. “Señor”
stands at the only truly great song that doesn’t have any problems dragging it down. Overall “Street Legal” is a mixed bag with too many problems to be considered a good album in any way.