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Bob Dylan's mid-1970's hot streak ends... Here. With this record. It actually isn't all that bad, and if he had retained the far superior Rolling Thunder band, he might have gotten away with it, because some of the songs are quite good.
This is what really happened. Dylan, after an acrimonious divorce from the former Sara Lowndes which occupied his attention for most of 1977, took to the road in Japan and Australia in February 1978. Drummer Howie Wyeth quit just before the tour, citing the difficulties of bringing drugs into Japan. Bassist Rob Stoner quit at the end of the tour, citing dissatisfaction with the setlists and the new drummer, Ian Wallace. Stoner was replaced by Jerry Scheff, formerly of Elvis Presley's 1970's band. Dylan then raided the late King's band for saxman Steve Douglas. The new lead guitarist was a guy named Billy Cross. He replaced such notables as Mick Ronson and T-Bone Burnett.
So, with this jury-rigged band, plus three female backing vocalists (a sure sign that a bad Dylan record is in the making), Dylan went to Santa Monica for two weeks of recording. The band was badly under-rehearsed, and it ended up being a quickie album inbetween tours. The opener, Changing of the Guards, was one of the better songs. A long, lyrical piece, nearly as epic as 1975's Hurricane, but the inventive lead violin had been replaced by Steve Douglas's sax, and the female singers ran wild, echoing almost every line. It sounded like a pretty good Bruce Springsteen song; Bruce himself would record horrors worse than this in his middle age. New Pony followed, it was a generic and forgettable blues. Then a genuine stinker, the eight-minute-plus No Time to Think, with some of the most rhyming-dictionary, forced rhymes of Dylan's career. It's rare that he records such a long song where he has nothing to say, and it's excruciating. Fast-forward this. The opening riff is the only part worth keeping.
Side one closes with Baby Stop Crying, which actually scraped the bottom of the singles chart in England. It's alright, but the long choruses and short verses suggest a lack of inspiration, and the female singers murder this one too.
Side two is a little more even, opening with Is Your Love in Vain?. This is a midtempo rocker with a pretty good melody (the melodies on this record tend to stick in the listener's head, when Dylan doesn't croak them or bury them in the mix), but surprisingly trite lyrics. Example: "Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow? Do you understand my pain? Are you willing to risk it all, or is your love in vain?"
Then comes the record's one true masterpiece, Senor (Tales of Yankee Power). An ominous Gypsy-flavored melody is married to apocalyptic lyrics which seem to vaguely concern a pursuit and a shadowy figure known only as "Senor". Nobody knows where the Yankee power comes from. (In 1978, probably from Reggie Jackson.) The horns and the backup singers keep it to a dull, almost tasteful roar. This is the only one of the Street Legal songs that Dylan airs out regularly in concert.
True Love Tends To Forget is another overblown love song with some decent couplets: "I'm getting weary / Of looking in my baby's eyes... When she's near me / She's so hard to recognize." We Better Talk This Over is another of the better songs, played at slightly faster speed, underpinned by a dirty, Stones-ish blues lick, and with a sense of humor (rare on this album). "I think we.. better talk this over. Maybe... when we both get sober." The closer is either called Where Are You Tonight? or Journey Through Dark Heat. It's a game attempt, but the instrumentation is decidedly tasteless, Dylan rides two chords for way too long, and he runs out of things to say about two minutes before it mercifully ends.
This record is actually something of a guilty pleasure, at least to me. It's Dylan's stab at epic tastelessness a la Bruce Springsteen, and since Dylan is no blue-collar Jersey guy, but a weird, self-absorbed, twitchy intellectual, it comes out very differently. And the melodies are sugar. They stick in your head until you forget how bad the album really is. So in some ways, the album succeeds.
Unfortunately, this album was the start of a long decline for Dylan, broken only by the Infidels and Real Live records in the early 1980s, and a few other songs (such as Every Grain of Sand) here and there. A year later, he would be a born again fundamentalist Christian for Slow Train Coming. The seeds of his conversion were apparently sown in part by his dissatsifaction with the Street Legal album and the widely panned US tour that followed.
1. Changing of the Guards
2. New Pony
3. No Time to Think
4. Baby Stop Crying
5. Is Your Love in Vain?
6. Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)
7. True Love Tends to Forget
8. We Better Talk This Over
9. Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)