“Changing of the Guards” by Bob Dylan

Street-Legal is one of those Bob Dylan albums on whose quality no-one can seem to agree; depending on who you ask, it is either one of his all-time masterpieces or one of the worst albums of his career. Complicating things is that it came just on the edge of his widely-agreed-upon slump period that lasted for most of the Eighties, and whether it was the beginning of that slump or one last burst of glory before it started is hotly argued to this day. Its detractors point to the substandard, overly pop-sounding arrangements, dismissing it as a ‘Dylan-goes-Vegas’ album. And I’ll grant you that the garish orchestrations, which sound like a cross between something you’d hear in a Vegas nightclub and an uninspired Garage Band, and the female backup singers, who sound like they migrated over from a B-list disco single, do not present this composition to its best advantage. But the thing that has won Street-Legal a not-inconsiderable set of die-hard fans over the years is the songwriting itself, which is some of Dylan’s most dense and sophisticated work, and this song, arguably the highlight of the album, is a particularly strong example of such. The tune is some of Dylan’s best work as a melodist, maybe not on the level of “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “Tangled Up In Blue”, but still tuneful and stirring and far more interesting as pure music than the vast majority of Dylan’s output. And the lyrics are top-drawer Dylan, a reminder that quite apart from his role as a popular singer he ranks as one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest poets. The lyrics may not make any sense at all when parsed literally…indeed, they make “Desolation Row” look like a model of sense and clear storytelling…but as a stream-of-consciousness series of Classical-influenced poetic images, it ranks as one of the crowning achievements of Dylan-as-abstract-poet. While not a ‘hit’ in any conventional sense, this song has been a staple of Bob Dylan ‘Best of’ compilations for years, and it makes a pretty convincing case for Street-Legal‘s quality, especially since it sets the stylistic template used by most of the other songs, making it a good representative of the album as a whole.

Verdict: Good enough to cut through its lousy arrangement, and emerge as one of Dylan’s all-time classics.

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