It saddens me that I can’t find it in my heart to agree with my colleague Dave Marsh that Bob Dylan‘s new record is a joke, or anyway a good one. Most of the stuff here is dead air, or close to it. The novelty of the music — soul chorus backup (modeled on Bob Marley‘s I-Threes), funk riffs from the band, lots of laconic sax work — quickly fades as one realizes how indifferent the playing is: “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power),” the most musically striking number here, is really just a pastiche of the best moments of the Eagles‘ Hotel California. Still, I believe some of the songs on Street Legal: those that are too bad to have been intended with anything but complete seriousness. Dylan may have once needed a dump truck to unload his head, but you’d need a Geiger counter to find irony in “Is Your Love in Vain?” or affection in “Baby Stop Crying.”
Both are wretched performances, but the former is particularly cruel: compared to Dylan’s posture here, Mick Jagger in “Under My Thumb” is exploring the outer reaches of humility. Not that there’s any bite in the song, as there is in “On the Road Again” or “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” two other Dylan numbers in which a woman gets what the singer thinks she has coming to her. There’s too much distance here for that — distance between an ego and its object. The man speaks to the woman like a sultan checking out a promising servant girl for VD, and his tone is enough to make her fake the pox if that’s what it takes to get away clean. When, after a string of gulf-between-the sexes insults (which pretty much come down to, Are you good enough for me?/I’m hot stuff, you know), the singer finally makes the big concession (“Alright, I’ll take a chance, I will fall in love with you” — odd notion of how falling in love works), you can almost see the poor girl heading for the exit. “Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow,” the man mouths, apparently making a dumb leap from housewife to earth mother, but in truth just rhyming. Then comes the kicker: “Can you understand my pain?” Women all over America must be saying what a friend of mine said: “Sure, Bob, give me a call sometime. If I’m not home, leave a message on the answer-phone.” As it happens, “Is Your Love in Vain?” is a high point on Street Legal — or, at least, the most emotionally convincing track on the album. No joke.
Ah, but the singing! The singing, which on other records has redeemed lines nearly as terrible as those I’ve quoted — what about the singing? Well, Bob Dylan has sounded sillier than he does on Street Legal (who could forget “Big Yellow Taxi”), more uncomfortable (“The Boxer”) and as disinterested (“Let It Be Me”), but he’s never sounded so utterly fake. Though this quality is sometimes cut with playfulness (“Changing of the Guards”), in “Baby Stop Crying,” the vocal is so fey, so intolerably smug, that the only reference point is one of those endless spoken intros Barry White was using a few years ago: an imitation of caring that couldn’t fool a stuffed dog. Dave Marsh is right when he says there are echoes of Elvis on Street Legal — “Is Your Love in Vain?” plays with the melody of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” before it turns into “Here Comes the Bride” — but not even “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car” was quite this creepy.
While most of the singing on Street Legal (the pronunciamentos of “No Time to Think,” for example: “Loyalty, unity/Epitome, rigidity”) falls short of creepiness, it’s simply impossible to pay attention to it for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Why should this be, when again and again — especially during those times, such as before the release of Blood on the Tracks, when both his fans and detractors had written him off — Dylan has proved himself as expressive and inventive as any singer in American music? I don’t know the answer, but merely not giving a damn whether a record is good enough for his audience might be a big part of the problem. But I also think that the near-constant touring Dylan has done since 1974 (all that raw chanting in big halls, all that gruff railing over the band) has at once produced a new vocal style, and destroyed Dylan’s timing and his ability to bring emotional precision to a lyric. In the singing style Dylan is using now, emotion has been replaced by mannerism, subtlety by a straining to be heard.
His word-to-word emphasis, when it isn’t pure hokum, is patently random; thus, the good lines come off no better than the bad. Dylan has always written throwaway lines as a necessary means to setting up the line he’s put his heart into, but when he sang, he’d toss off the throwaways, bury them, and then rush back with everything he had. What he was really setting up was an ambush for the listener — that’s a lot of what “Like a Rolling Stone” is about. There are no such dynamics here. With little or no sense of rhythm in the singing, you can’t stay with the music; either it becomes an irritant (and the stiff female choruses Dylan uses all over Street Legal only compound the irritation), or you just stop hearing anything.
There have been bad Dylan albums before, of course; but Self Portrait had “Copper Kettle,” New Morning “Sign on the Window” and “Went to See the Gypsy,” Planet Waves “Wedding Song” and Desire “Sara.” The collapse of Dylan’s timing insures that there are no such odd gems on Street Legal. Timing can spark an ordinary lyric with genius or a pedestrian arrangement with magic; no one who has heard Dylan mutter “All right!” in “Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence” or push the Hawks through the 1966 Albert Hall version of “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” can doubt his flair for devastatingly idiosyncratic rhythm. On “Get Your Rocks Off!,” one of the unreleased Basement Tapes performances, he even laughs in time — or makes the rhythm re-create itself around his laugh. On the new record, the only hint of decent singing comes in the first four verses of “New Pony” — and it’s the sort of blues Dylan can sing in his sleep, and probably does.
The most interesting — if that’s the word — aspect of Street Legal is its lyrics, which often pretend to the supposed impenetrability of Dylan’s mid-Sixties albums, the albums on which his reputation still rests. But the return is false; you may not have known why Dylan was singing about a “Panamanian moon” in “Memphis Blues Again” (or, for that matter, have had any idea why the blues were Memphian rather than Bostonian), but you knew what “Your debutante just knows what you need/But I know what you want” meant, and it meant a lot. In Street Legal‘s “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” — the parenthetical part of the title is the most inspired thing on the record — the lines, “Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled/Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field,” are just a gesture, just a wave at the fans. Not that the effect of the lines can’t hurt: it’s hard not to hear the older songs now in terms of the new numbers that appear to resemble them, and then conclude that at bottom “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and “Highway 61 Revisited” are as empty as “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey through Dark Heat),” even though that isn’t remotely true.
I mean, if I want a joke, I’ll listen to Steve Martin sing “King Tut.” That line, “He gave his life for tourism,” is really funny.