After the masterpieces of Blood on the Tracks and Desire, it seems inevitable that Dylan’s follow-up would dip slightly in quality. Blood on the Tracks was a naked emotional affair, and Desire was a wild, gypsy sounding outing – the perfect studio counterpart for the Rolling Thunder Revue. And Street Legal? Parts of it sound like a cross between E-Street Band (there’s saxophones) and a Vegas theme-show (the first appearance of the backing singers).
Lyric-wise the album finds Dylan swimming in similar waters as the past two albums – the break-up of his marriage, and his divorce. He’s looking for new women in his life – even if it’s just for one wild ride as suggested in “New Pony”. “New Pony” is among the grittiest songs Dylan has recorded. Its fierce riff and pounding drums perfectly suit the menacing equestrian/sexual theme of the song. Dylan has written many songs about sex, but “New Pony” is probably his most explicit – it almost makes the listener feel dirty.
If there was ever a song that begged for the acoustic Dylan it would be “No Time to Think”. “No Time to Think” is 1970s Dylan in full protest mood with views on mortality. (In a way, it’s a sort of pre-cursor to the Christian albums, which would shortly follow Street Legal). It’s a dense song – lyrics such as ” You glance through the mirror and there’s eyes staring clear At the back of your head as you drink And there’s no time to think” would have hit harder if it weren’t for the big-band production.
Street Legal finds Dylan at a cross roads. Throughout the album, he’s taken the yearning for lost love as far it can go. It’s not surprising that in the year (1978) when punk rock was at its apex, Dylan would go the opposite route and put out an album full of grandiose arrangements and a full-band. Ultimately, Street Legal can be a rewarding album on its own merits, but unlike Dylan’s best albums, the gems aren’t on the surface.