CK Retro Review: Empire Burlesque by Bob DylanPosted: July 1, 2013
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)