CK Retro Review: Empire Burlesque by Bob Dylan

Some call it an unsung masterpiece and others call it an overproduced mess. 1985’s Empire Burlesque is one those fantastically polarizing Bob Dylan albums whose ability to stir debate among the faithful is one of its strongest charms. If nothing else, Bob’s songwriting was engaging and enthralling in parts, even when the sound let him down. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

10. “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky”- As someone who grew up in the 80’s, I will defend a lot of the excess that accompanied the decade’s music with everything I have. Alas, the production of this track cannot be defended. Too bad Dylan didn’t choose the E Street Band take found on the Bootleg Series, and it’s too bad some compelling lyrics are buried in the faux exotica conjured by Dylan and remixer Arthur Baker.

9. “Seeing The Real You At Last”- Dylan just isn’t the right vocal fit for the sinewy horns and synthetic drums that adorn this record. The lyrics, which detail the narrator’s final kiss-off to a troublesome paramour, aren’t anything spectacular either.

8. “Trust Yourself”- If Dylan was indeed telling his fans with these lyrics that they could make their own judgments and decisions about the paths they should take in their lives without the help of any songwriter, putting this message in the midst of a plodding rhythm and a jingle-like melody might have been the best way to do it. After all, who could hear any kind of brilliant insight in such a mediocre recording?

THREE STARS

7. “Never Gonna Be The Same Again”- Some of the lyrics are cringeworthy (the first four lines) and some of them are so funny they hurt (“Don’t worry baby, I don’t mind leaving/I’d just like it to be my idea.”) I also like the way the odd, descending melody that starts each verse resolves itself in the refrains. Dylan’s heart-on-sleeve vocal is what sticks long after the synthesizers fade.

6. “Something’s Burning, Baby”- The bizarre combination of synthesizers and a martial beat somehow works here, allowing Dylan some room to pepper his lover with questions about her hidden self. In that respect, the song can be compared to Bruce Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise,” as both are based on the idea that it is impossible to ever be truly at peace when doubt lingers about the person you love the most.

FOUR STARS

5. “Clean Cut Kid”- It’s a wild ride of a recording, marked by Ron Wood’s grimy guitar riffs and Anton Fig’s herky-jerky, snare-heavy beat. Dylan’s cautionary tale is similarly chaotic, yet it still hits home. His main character at first seems to be a soldier whose life is turned upside down by battle, but he later on morphs into a young celebrity whose too-fast, too-soon lifestyle includes Peter O’ Toole, Burger Kings, and a header off the Golden Gate Bridge. It may be hard to piece that story together, but you can easily imbibe Bob’s views on the bad results that occur when impressionable people blindly grasp for the false ideals pitched by those without their best interests at heart.

4. “Emotionally Yours”- One of the hallmarks of late-period Dylan is his tendency to include ballads that showcase direct, emotional songcraft in favor of intricate, complex lyrics. Empire Burlesque might have been the starting point for all this, as “Emotionally Yours” and “I Remember You” both fit the category and serve it well. “Emotionally Yours” gets some great guitar work from Mike Campbell and Bob’s touching piano intro to help overcome the synth horns. As far as promises go, if you can “always be emotionally yours” to your significant other, you’re stepping up to the plate pretty well.

3. “Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)”- The rhythm section of Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar may not have brought much flavor to their work on Infidels, but the head-bobbing groove they create here is undeniably fine. Dylan has a ball singing the lyrics, as his narrator is quick with the snappy comebacks but still vulnerable to the wounds of enigmatic romance. As for the catchy chorus, I’ve always heard it as the guy searching not for a girl but for the intangible quality of love that’s impossible to track down and even harder to keep.

FIVE STARS

2. “I’ll Remember You”- Dylan aims straight for the heart bone on this one and splits the target in two. What makes this one so affecting is the way it implies that the narrator is about to leave behind the subject of his tribute, which makes the love and devotion he professes deeply bittersweet. The music, played with restraint (for once on this album) by Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Howie Epstein along with Jim Keltner on drums and Bob on piano, allows open space for Dylan and Madelyn Quebec to explore the melody. Bob’s phrasing is brilliant and his desperate vocals in the bridge as he recalls the couple’s hard times and triumphs really grab you. “I’ll Remember You” doesn’t do anything fancy, but it does everything well and conveys some heavyweight emotional content in the process.

1. “Dark Eyes”- Quibble if you will about Arthur Baker’s contributions to Empire Burlesque, but the producer/remixer deserves eternal thanks from Dylan fans for suggesting to Bob that he needed a quiet change of pace to close out the record. “Dark Eyes” feels autobiographical, a snapshot of where Dylan stood at that point in his life. The narrator compares the staid world that his body inhabits to the one to which his heart and mind constantly flies, a region of beauty and darkness. The price he pays for his choosing this haven for ghosts and dreamers is isolation on the corporeal plane: “A million faces at my feet but all I see are dark eyes.” Bob’s voice is so distant and lonely, his harmonica and guitar-plucks so delicate, that he makes his doppelganger’s location in the cosmic wilderness sound both wondrous and harrowing. Utterly compelling from first note to last.

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

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

 

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11 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Empire Burlesque by Bob Dylan”

  1. PK says:

    I really love “Night Comes Falling” even on the album version. It makes me sad that you didn’t give it at least a 3-Star.

  2. Jacek says:

    Something’s Burning, Baby and Dark Eyes are my big favorites here. It’s an album that I always enjoy once it’s on, but rarely actually feel the desire to spin.

  3. Baggy says:

    I really appreciate both I’ll Remember You and Emotionally Yours, so it is good to see them given such a positive write-up. But I couldn’t in all honesty read across from the last set of rankings and put them ahead of Jokerman and I and I.

    I’d also place When the Night Comes Falling somewhat higher, but then I’d dump Clean-Cut Kid to the bottom of this particular pile instead.

  4. I’ll Remember You is a masterpiece of a song. Right to the point (cuts to the core). If you haven’t seen it, checkout the version with Petty and The heartbreakers from that Australian video “Hard to Handle”.

    Thanks for the great reviews.

  5. Bob says:

    I’ll Remember You’…’Shooting Star’…’Sign on the Window’…’Never Say Goodbye’…’This Dream of You’…So many minor masterpieces…

  6. PK says:

    I started going to Dylan concerts in the 90’s. Starting in ’92 with my last show in 2001. I saw him at least 5 times. What’s always struck me is that, at least during the time that I was frequenting the shows, Infidels, Empire and Red Sky were all pretty heavily featured. Which was nice because it really allowed me to hear the songs and appreciate them out of the context of otherwise lackluster albums.

  7. […] read an alternativie review by Jim Beviglia […]

  8. Shelley says:

    For me, it’s really the sonic qualities that mar much of this record. I have an undubbed recording of “Emotionally Yours”, and the absence of the synth strings makes this track a much more enjoyable listen, they truly are god-awful sounding. “When the Night Comes Falling” is another casuality of 80s overkill, though I do feel the song is much better suited to the minor key here as opposed to the Bootleg Series major key version. And I’ll say I always thought “Trust Yourself” was a pretty good song, a nice tip of the hat to the Staples Singers’ “Respect Yourself”.

  9. Wow, I’m honestly completely shocked that you ranked WTNCFFTS as the worst song on this record. From the first time I heard this album, that song really struck a chord with me, easily the best song on the album in my opinion.

  10. hans altena says:

    I refrained from reacting back in the days I first read this review, because I always was in doubt about this one. It delivered the soundtrack to a lousy period in my life and the eighties were a time when the current sound made me feel like hell even more, so EB depressed me equally because of its Baker production, yet the lyrics grabbed me and the nasty way Dylan was singing, its intensity, went right to my heart. Now, a month ago, Music On Vinyl, released a new vinyl version and I decided to try it out, as I had left my own original copy just as I had left my old life, behind me. What happened was a revelation. Sure, the synths on Emotionally Yours are still beyond redemption, but for the rest there is much more depth in this remaster, the bass having much more warmth and funk, the drums resonating instead of being like concrete hitting steel and being less upfront in the mix, while the occasional organ and the exellent guitars are at last getting space and attention. All in all, the disco was more overshadowed by the funky rock. I started to feel the energy of the thing. I am still not fond of Never Gonna be the Same, but the rest of the songs i can now acknowledge as good material. And to be frank, to me the three openers and those three that end the record have always been impressive to these ears, WTSCF and SBB being served by the aggressive production and Dark Eyes simply beautiful, and now all even better sounding, especially the guitar in Dark Eyes. And that voice, there in the room with you. I stil wished he had thrown out the synths, but I have gained another Dylan masterpiece, failed and hampered as it is by being made in that awful era yet quite a lot improved upon now. Recommended for a try, though those who always hated WTSCF on this album will hardly be converted as I am, man that song was my devilish companion in hard days and still hits me to the core, somehow like Idiot Wind, just listen to how he sings THAT ICY WIND HOWLIN IN YOUR EYES, which sadly does not appear in the much tamer version with the E Street band, despite their excellent backing.


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