John Hammond Sr., the great pop music impresario, once claimed that it cost him a mere $408 to record Bob Dylan's first album in late 1963.
Fifteen years later, the elusive songpoet has released still another album with the fidelity of one of those do-it-yourself disc machines that used to fill corner spaces in the nation's five-and-tens. But what "Street Legal" (Columbia JC 35453) lacks in fidelity and sound quality, Dylan more than makes up for in his faithfulness to the art of making music. In that category he remains without peer.
Dylan's musical evolution (odyssey might be a better word) has been about as unpredictable as the flight of a windswept kite. And about as lofty. From album to album, Dylan's changing style has played havoc with the fans' stoic anticipation of his next release - much to his satisfaction. Alternating between poses as moody folk-singer, rockabilly twanger, romantic crooner and wistful tramp, it seems as though his jeu d'esprit has followed his own pronouncement: The times they are a-changin'.
Sorting through this welter of personalities, one still finds Dylan to be the shrewdest, most invigorating and piercing force in pop music today. He has become a legendary rogue (much like his hero Woody Guthrie) whose songs are an evocation of his half-mythical, frenzied existence. They hold listeners spellbound in the same way that one is drawn to the daring escapades of riverboat gamblers, dandies and desperadoes on the tear. Vivid characters leap from his musical scenarios, witty and full of mettle, with unforgettable impact.
But there is also a soft romantic side to Dylan's music that begs to be understood, despite his intentional incongruities. He reveals his most personal emotions in embarrassing scenes of self-pity but still insists on his mysterious, almost reclusive, privacy; he writes a self-indulgent, surrealistic lyric accompanied by a singalong melody. These are among the elements that make Dylan and his music utterly fascinating. He lures the listeners just within reach of his world without allowing him close enough to touch.
"Street Legal" is as arresting as it is confounding - confounding in the sense that each song is motivated by a distinctively different set of feelings: jealousy, satisfaction, love, resentment, sympathy, impetuosity. Dylan offers them all at one time, with an urgency that will invite analysis and argument among his most ardent admirers for years to come.
Much of the album appears to e inspired by the departure of his wife, Sara, from whom he is now divorced. There are pleas for reconciliation, pronouncements of true love, intolerable hurt and, in a total about-face, cold advice in regard to leaving one another quickly in order to resume their separate lives. "This situation can only get rougher/why should we needlessly suffer?" he reasons matter-of-factly, though his casualness seems to hide despair.
Six of the selections are love songs with a degree of abandon and tenderness never expressed quite so openly by Dylan before. "Baby Don't Cry" tells of a lover's compassion, and "Is Our Love In Vain," prehaps the best song on the album, explores a couple's awakening to discover that they really never knew one another at all. Dylan laments, "Do you love me, or are you just extending good will?" in a breathtaking elegy to what seems to be his doomed marriage, and one cannot help but feel the agony.
"Street Legal" also contains the social and apocalyptic themes familiar from Dylan's earlier albums. Like Poe's his is a world infused with mild insanity and genius, tortured by unrequited love. And it is from this bizarre viewpoint that he sees so clearly what escapes us.
"The Changing Of The Guard," a lengty ode highly reminiscent fo his "Ballad Of The Thin Man" from "Highway 61 Revisited," opens side one of the album with a full background of female vocalists echoing warnings of society's imminent destruction as seen through the eyes of a visionary philosopher. (As is so often the case in Dylan's paradoxical writing, the wise men don't respond. They are too busy expenditing their folly.) The forcefulness of the band's arrangement - all electric, with help from some excellent saxophone accompaniment - builds steadily to a crescendo of ominous doom and suspense. The melody, while simple in structure, is haunting; and Dylan's Voice brings it home in style.
Similarly, "Time to Think It Over" examines the fate of a hedonist bent on fulfilling his every desire. (Dylan's cynical alarm seems a bit ironic coming from a man who made a four-hour movie based on his fantasies.) And "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" dramatizes the topical plight of aliens attempting to get into the country illegally.
Dylan's wispy voice has never been better, his insistent phrasing building mock-seriuos drama at designated intervals along the way. But it is his writing, his magical blend of precise words, images and sentiments that elevates both him and this album above all others in the genre. There has never been much doubt about his dominance there, although some listeners have been put off by his self-indulgence. But for those willing to bear with the semi-autobiographical soliloquies, "Street Legal" is Dylan's most eloquent album to date.