In the nearly three years since the release of "Desire," Bob Dylan has gone through some rough times. Hurricane Carter, the man who reawakened Dylan's dedication to causes, was re-tried and again found guilty. But not till after he'd beat up his parole officer. Despite the sentiments of "Sarah," Dylan's wife sued for divorce and the messy court proceedings became grist for the gossip mill. His obsessive film project, "Reynaldo and Clara," was universally panned and so offended The Village Voice that it had four different critics rake it over the coals. ("Reynaldo and Clara" is currently being re-edited down to two hours from its original four+.) "Hard Rain," a live album of old material released over a year ago, went clunk. Dylan, you would think, would be singing the bitterest of blues.
He isn't. He also isn't singing disco, so you real worries in the ranks can relax. What he is singing on "Street Legal" is a mixture of gutty rock, pseudo-soul and plaintive melodies: a strange brew.
What makes it even stranger is its appeal. Not the kind of appeal that jumps out at you, nor the kind that comes from an obviously satisfying effort. "Street Legal" has an appeal that sneaks up on you. It's somehow a more personal album without overtly personal lyrics. The gut reaction is to say it's no "Blood on the Tracks," but then few Dylan albums are. Few albums by anyone are.
After saying that, though, it's tough to classify it, and the more you hear it, more things began to slip into open spaces in the cortex. For a rather direct rock album, "Street Legal" is eerily subtle.
Bob Dylan is not a singer but a writer. Originally he was labeled a poet, but his more recent tracts ("Isis," "Ballad of Joey," "Hurricane") have taken on the characteristics of folks ballads. As a writer, Dylan has done more to influence the direction of popular music than anyone, with the possible exception of the Beatles. (Paul Simon is probably Dylan's equal in some ways, but Simon talks to the audience that grew up with Dylan and now suffers from approaching middle age and middle class. He also has yet to exert the personal force that Dylan can master on sheer mystique).
If Dylan were to quit recording tomorrow (as he has threatened to do a number of times), his place in music history would be secure. No other performer commands the awe among his peers. The Beatles are mythic, but Ringo is a joker, George hosts "Saturday Night Live," Paul is merely a rock superstar with a lot of new hit records, John is silent. And they're four people. Dylan is a legend all by himself.
It's very difficult for a legend to produce legendary material consistenly. Legends are supposed to be dead, or at least so far removed from what made them legends that it's easy to categorize everything they ever did. Dylan risks chipping his reputation every time out.Once there was a feeling among some people that Dylan couldn't make a mistake. He can. He still does.
The call and response vocal technique of "Changing of the Guards" gets a bit predictable after the initial shock wears off. Especially when it continues through most of side one. "No Time to Think" has the urgency of "Tangled Up in Blue," but eight minutes is too long to sustain it.
"New Pony" has a much fuller sound than most Dylan tunes, and you can dance to it, but it's not really memorable. "Baby Stop Crying" is a grittier version of "Lay Lady Lay" and has moments of lyrical weakness ("Go down to the river, babe, and I will meet you there/ Go down to the river, babe, honey, I'll pay your face/ Baby please stop crying . . . "). Yet it's here that the record gets more intimate, somehow closer to your heart. It's not the words, although Dylan offers himself as a friend and continually asks (as opposed to orders) his baby to please stop crying. The pleading is in his tone. You sense in yearning that was missing from "Desire."
The vague warmth at the end of side one becomes more focused on side two. "Is Your Love in Vain" utilizes horns and voices as an evocative backdrop to Dylan's plaintive but searing questions: "I've been hurt before and I know the score/ So you won't hear me complain/ Will I be able to count on you/ Or is your love in vain." It probes more painfully: "Do you know my world/ Do you know my kind/ Or must I explain/ While you let me need myself/ Or is your love in vain."
The moving "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" follows "Is Your Love in Vain" and a sneaking suspicion begins to emerge that these are two classics, back to back. Despite what Fleetwood Mac and "Saturday Night Fever" might have you believe, there is no such thing as an "instant classic." A classic gains its status over time. However, the beaten desperado delivery of "Senor" and its universal pathos masked in folklore make it stick out from the rest of the album.
Another stickout feature is its spare musical arrangement. Dylan usually opts for spontaneity, sacrificing production smoothness. The tracks on "Street Legal," though, are finely crafted and much deeper than many previous Dylan albums. All except "Senor," which uses little background and lets Dylan carry the load in his vocal. The result is the deepest cut of all.
The rest of the album radiates an energy underscored by the compositions' flow rather than their actual statements. "True Love Tends to Forget," "We Better Talk This Over" and "Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through the Dark Heat)" are uptempo and build to a bristling intensity.
"True Love Tends to Forget" is strong but resigned; "We Better Talk This Over" is self-pitying, but you can feel the power surge, and by the time the band rocks into the finale you're being swept along by a current of passion. The naked feelings are in stark contrast to the aloof loner we've been following all these years.
Artistically, Bob Dylan must be judged through his music. His erratic personal life is not mirrored in his songs, but prismed. The angles are distorted and the light is shaded, but the emotions are crystal clear. "Street Legal" demands time, but it grows on you.
And those people waiting all these years for "the new Dylan" should know by now that there is no need for a new one. Just an occasional new album from the old one.