CK Retro Review: Infidels

It may be the one Bob Dylan album that’s more known for what’s not on it than for what is. Had Dylan included “Blind Willie McTell” and “Foot Of Pride” on 1983’s Infidels, it likely would enjoy a reputation much better than the muted one it currently holds. Even without those two songs that were recorded during the album’s sessions but were left on the cutting-room floor, the album is still an interesting mix of blunt excoriations and vague meditations with a modern sound at times too slick and at times sneakily soulful. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

8. “Union Sundown”- When Dylan is at his best, he brings insight to topical material that can’t be gleaned from just a cursory read of the morning paper. Alas, he comes off like a barroom loudmouth here, making obvious points about American jobs heading overseas. He gets points, however, for rhyming “El Salvador” with “dinosaur.”

7. “Neighborhood Bully”- As always, my barometer when judging Dylan’s topical songs isn’t the opinion he’s offering but rather how well he offers it. “Neighborhood Bully” makes its points about Israel’s isolation within the community of the world well enough, but it feels like it makes too many of them, so that one can become numb to it all by the end. The music chugs along all right, but with no more invention than a Dire Straits deep album cut.

THREE STARS

6. “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight”- The production is a shade or two too glossy, Dylan seems at times to be a singing a different song from what the band is playing, and the last verse is just plain bizarre. Yet when Bob goes all soulful on us, it’s always a bit hard to resist, especially when he’s doing it to convince some reticent girl to his point of view. It certainly gave folks a little preview of what was to come on Empire Burlesque.

5. “Man Of Peace”- This one is interesting in how it almost imperceptibly picks up steam, so what seems like a clever enough blues rant becomes practically epic in the coda as Mick Taylor and Mark Knopfler blast away with Dylan’s harmonica sandwiched between. The central conceit is as old as the whole wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing proverb, but Bob gets off some excellent one-liners, such as when he says that the sneaky main character “can ride down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your skull.” It’s not a classic by any stretch, but it’s a good bit of fun.

4. “I And I”- Dylan was a man trapped in this song: Between the past and present, between Christianity and Rastafarianism, between an unforgiving exterior world and a warm bed with a strange woman it, between himself and, well, himself. That’s a whole lot to try and convey in the span of a song, and “I And I” is indeed a bit elusive lyrically. It’s a good thing then that the music on this track is so subtly powerful, with Knopfler’s moody licks worming through the vast open spaces of the arrangement.

FOUR STARS

3. “Jokerman”- Those of you who read my original Top 200 list know that I excluded “Jokerman,” but the outpouring of support it received from commenters caused me to reconsider. I still don’t think the music quite rises to the stakes raised by the lyrics, and that may be why I gave those lyrics short shrift. But, on second thought, “Jokerman” turns out to be one of Dylan’s most fully-realized character sketches, a vivid portrait of a fellow with the world at his feet and a void within his heart. Spectacular imagery throughout, and Bob sings it all deftly. I still wish it had been placed in a more animated musical setting, but, hey, I admit I underrated this sucker originally.

2. “Sweetheart Like You”- There’s a serene soulfulness to this track, amped up by the lyrical lines that Taylor lays down on lead guitar. Dylan got ripped by some who claimed he was being sexist, but the lines about “Sweetheart” belonging in the home seem like the narrator’s way of saying that his own affection, along with the whole seedy world he inhabits, isn’t worthy of her, sort of like the way Bob would warn off “Sugar Baby” on “Love And Theft” a few years down the line. In my book, this one deserves a second listen from those who might have written it off.

1. “License To Kill”- Robbie Shakespeare’s bass work on this song is outstanding, conjuring up the understated menace that drips off Dylan’s lyrics. Of all the potshots Bob takes at space travel on the album, the catchiest one comes here: “Man has invented his doom/First step was touching the moon.” As ignorant machismo runs rampant and violent over the world, a lone woman watches it all, her prophecies of doom remaining unspoken because no one would listen anyway. Chilling stuff expertly rendered.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter. For a more in-depth look at the songs of Bob Dylan, check out the Amazon link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, also available on all major book-selling sites.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238

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21 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Infidels”

  1. Baggy says:

    Somehow I’ve alway thought of this album as greater than the sum of it’s parts, but maybe it is not. Looked at it in terms of song rankings I can hear 4 x four star songs ( i might argue better for Jokerman and I and I ) and 4 x two star songs. Not only did he leave off the best stuff (Blind Willie Mctell , Foot of Pride) he also left off the good stuff (Tell Me, Lord Protect my Child).

    In reading your reviews CK over recent days I’ve really renewed my enthusiasm for Saved and Shot of Love. But on Infidels the gap between the strong material and the weak material really is very wide. And your comment on Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight made me laugh – at times i’ve struggled to hear Bob singing a tune on there at all. Normally Bob delivers a very strong final track which really makes a statement, but not here.

    Thank heavens for Jokerman, and I’m pleased to see you responding to the outcry since your top 200 list was first published.

    • countdownkid says:

      Good point about “Tell Me” and “Lord Protect My Child.” And it is a fascinating album in its way; it may not have any true masterpieces, in my book, but everything is endlessly intriguing.

  2. PK says:

    I really enjoy your posts CK! Thank you. I’ve always really enjoyed “Sundown” and “Man of Peace” although I’m not sure the politics espoused in them make any sense. In fact I find that I like a lot of Bob’s clunkers. “No Time to Think” is another one of my favorites. I don’t know why.

    CK what’s your plan for doing the outtakes, one-offs and strays? Are you going to include them in a Bootleg Series post? What about soundtrack contributions? Will there be a sepcial post that rounds up stuff like: You belong to me, Tell Bill, Things have Changed, Gods and Generals and stuff like that?

    • countdownkid says:

      Thanks for the compliment. I will say that even the Bob songs that I find clunkers are usually interesting in their way. I haven’t decided about the Bootleg Series stuff and the others. We’ll see where we’re at once we get done with the albums. If I have some time, I definitely would love to get into all those great songs. Of course, those songs are included in the book.

  3. Jacek says:

    I think it to License to Kill’s great credit that it took me something like twenty listens to realize just how many words in that song rhyme with “kill.” As an aspiring/amateur songwriter myself I’ve found the hardest thing about rhyming is not finding the rhymes, but making sure they don’t sound contrived, or like the line was written only because the rhyme needed fulfilling. Best of all is when the rhyme at the end of a line sounds so smooth and seamless that one doesn’t even notice it at first. That’s License to Kill, in spades!

  4. Shabtai says:

    Hi CK

    1. Glad you have realized Jokerman is a masterpiece.
    2. It is a pity you don’t get the greatness of I&I . True it is not simple, you have to feel the song more than understand it, the lyrics are dreamy like or impressionistic, but it is a legitimate classic.
    With all due respect you should have considered an “insignificant authority” like Leonard Cohen admiring this song.
    3. Related to “Union Sundown”
    a. True it is very direct- no subtlety here, but it is full of power and energy denouncing greed, capitalism and globalization.
    b. Show me another song which (at least in its chorus) envisions US 2008 economic collapse.
    c. If my memory serves me well, back then in 1983 globalization in its modern context, and certainly in the negative connotation was not born yet.

    4 stars at least.

    • countdownkid says:

      I’m not sure I’d go so far as masterpiece for “Jokerman,” because I still think the music is lacking. Good point about the relevance of “Union Sundown” though.

  5. B. Egan says:

    Three cheers for Jokerman!!! Yay-Yay-Yay!!! Here’s hoping it has a well-deserved listing in the 100 Finest book. Really enjoying this album count-down…a lot! Thanks!

  6. hans altena says:

    Though I myself fell into that trap when reacting on your merciful review of Shot of Love, one should not criticize an album for what’s not on it, and happily you held back from going to deep into the terrible mistakes made in the cutting room when Infidels was conceived. They were in line with the faulty production (bordering on robotic, due in part to the stone age digital format in which it was crammed and the choice for Sly and Robbie who had gotten such a good team that nothing happened anymore between them, they turned out rhythms as automats, the only salvation lay in recruiting a Mick Taylor on fire who by contrast made the slick licks of Mark Knopfler interesting enough). I even doubt if the right song selection would have saved the record totally in that matter (Neighbourhood Bully out because of its too political black and white stance, not withstanding the excellent lyrical level, it would have made a funny kick in your face single together with the strong and indeed prophetical true but too eighties sounding Union Sundown which also not fits in). Yet, his songwriting here was melodically and poetically mostly spot on. Jokerman works even with the arrangement and is a classic, sung very well. You give Sweetheart like you the accolades it deserves, just like License to kill. To me Man of peace is just a bit below the level of Jokerman, but the two are so connected I always see them in the same bright light. I and I gives me the goosebumps, in what is suggested by the music (as in Jokerman the machine like atmosphere created by Sly and Robbie reminds me of Krafwerk in a positive way) and hidden in the elusive words that manage to evoke a loneliness once near to my heart, chilling! The end song is captivating in some moments and as a whole a nice ending, though the instruments are drowned, just as the voice in the awful mix. A missed chance, one more step nearer to Dylan becoming knocked out and loaded in the eighties, and even more painful when you realise what he still had in store as an artist. I almost can’t listen to it therefor, the bootlegs offer a smal consolation.

    • Jacek says:

      Hans, thanks for pointing out how useless Sly & Robbie are throughout most of this record! I never see that brought up as an issue, whereas I think it’s a bigger problem than Bob’s decisions about the track list. Their leaden playing makes Man of Peace, Neighborhood Bully and Union Sundown a profound slog for me. I think they shine on Jokerman, and get away with a few of the others, but do serious damage elswehere. I wish I could hear this “on fire” Mick Taylor you speak of, but aside from his guitar break on Jokerman (which may be my favorite part of the song!) none of his work on Infidels makes me sit up and take notice. I’d appreciate it if you could point me to some specific places where you like what he does; I’m still relatively new to the album so it’s possible that I’ve overlooked some good sections.

      • hans altena says:

        It is more that I like the way he contrapoints the clear notes of Mark with his bluesy approach, mostly on slide, yet it is deeply buried in the mind numbing mix. Just let it grow on you, those sounds of him in the background. There ‘s little use in me pointing out what I like, when it is your own taste that is at stake, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. Infidels needs a lot of patience and endurance to hear the great potential lurking behind its mask, a source of inspiration sorrily maltreated in the studio, a place that Dylan had started to hate because of it’s modernisation that had killed the great sound he knew from the recordings in the fifties and beginning of the sixties. It somehow marks the relative greatness of Shot of Love that had managed to oppose the tendency of the dark times starting in the eighties.

      • countdownkid says:

        I don’t know if I’d go so far as useless. But I do have a feeling that Bob wasn’t ready to commit all-in to the kind of stuff they were used to doing, and, as a result, their impact is definitely minimal considering the reputation they held as musicians and producers.

    • countdownkid says:

      I like the comparison to Kraftwerk; never thought of it that way. And I also agree that those two cutting-room floor songs probably wouldn’t have salvaged the album, mostly because “Blind Willie McTell”, as wondrous as it is, doesn’t really fit in that well with the rest. (“Foot Of Pride” is a little bit of a cozier fit though.)

  7. whalespoon says:

    “I and I” ranks among Dylan’s most prophetic and spiritual works–easily a five star song. When I first heard it back in ’83, it did not make much of an impression on me and I would not have rated it any higher than you did. However, over the last few years with repeated listening, this song has taken on a whole new dimension for me. Practically every lyrical idea is dripping with significance, and the moody atmosphere of the music and vocal make the song as apocalyptic as anything else in the Dylan canon. The impressionistic nature of the words only serve to strengthen the sense of foreboding. The refrain is mysterious and the way Bob sings it each time only makes it more so. One of his all-time top ten songs in my book and the best track on the album by far.

    I’ve always thought “Sweetheart” and “License” were corny, albeit for different reasons–two star songs. (“Sweetheart,” though, does have that great paraphrase from Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings.” On the other hand: “Man has invented his doom/First step was touching the moon”–really Bob?) “Sundown” and “Bully” are WAY too obvious, though I can agree with Bob’s politics on them and the band rocks out–three stars each. I can see why people rave about “Jokerman”‘s sense of word play but that song never really has grown on me even after all these years–three stars. I totally agree with you on “Fall Apart”‘s lack of much of a melody–two stars. It seems to me that “Foot” and “Man” are flip sides of the same coin, which is perhaps why “Foot” didn’t make the final cut. Both are terrific, though not classics–four stars each.

    As for “Blind Willie,” it’s another one of Bob’s all-time greatest songs–especially the outtake featuring the band and Taylor’s(?) wonderfully expressive slide guitar–five stars.

    Altogether, it’s a better album than it’s reputation would indicate. Maybe its reputation suffers because it is so wildly uneven.

    • countdownkid says:

      I actually like the line about the moon, because I don’t read it so much as a dig at space travel. I feel like he’s using it as a metaphor for man’s hubris and unquenchable thirst for control over things bigger than him. Other than that, our opinions aren’t too far apart.

      Even Infidels’ reputation is hard to pin down in some ways. When it came out, critics tired of the religious stuff fell all over themselves praising it, but that now seems like a knee-jerk reaction.

      • whalespoon says:

        I think you are correct in your assessment of the initial reaction to the album. One of the initial comments that I remember was a review in “The Telegraph” in which the author (Michael Gray, I think, but I’m not sure) described “Infidels” as something like “a paper Dylan let loose for the benefit of the tourists.” Funny at the time, but so wrong on so many levels…It seems to me that much of the album is as “religious” as any of the preceding three albums. Thematically, “License,” “Bully,” “Man of Peace,” and maybe even “Sundown” would not be out of place on “Slow Train Coming.” “Sweetheart” is basically “Covenant Woman 2.0.” Looking back on it now with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, it really is comical. The press was suckered in to believing that Dylan had “moved on from his Christian phase” when he named the album “Infidels” and when the spirituality of songs like “I and I” and “Jokerman” was muted and subtle, instead of blatant and in your face. Probably gave Bob a good laugh!

        One comment about the band–I would not argue with the comments that the final mixes are atrocious and the ’80’s recording technology of the time did not serve either the songs or the album well, but I think the musicianship on the album is generally excellent. In listening to recordings of the ’84 European tour and the “Real Live” album, Knopfler et al were able to conjure music in the studio that the band could not come even close to capturing on the road. I understand that Bob did not convene the band until about a week before the tour, so there was a minimal amount of rehearsal before the first few gigs, but even by the end of the tour, the nuances of the music were still completely absent. Of course, that could just be Bob being contrary–who knows…

  8. sad says:

    I and I is great. It is like getting into Husserl or Levinas–so many layers to sort through. Perhaps it takes not only many listens, but many years to appreciate.


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