We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
Today, the Dylanologist is pleased a new addition to Maggie’s Farm: the Bob Dylan album review series.Beginning today, with new installments appearing (almost) every Friday, The Dylanologist will cast a critical eye on each of the song and dance man’s albums, from the introductory “Bob Dylan” up to 2001’s widely acclaimed effort “Love and Theft,” or at least as many as he can cover before exhaustion sets in.Reviews will NOT be posted in any sort of chronological order, but according to the Dylanologist’s mood and current listening preferences.
This week’s review tackles one of Dylan’s most maligned albums, “Empire Burlesque,” released in 1985.The 1980s are generally considered to have been Dylan’s weakest decade, a time when his well of creativity at last dried up after a long fertile phase.While it’s difficult to point to any albums from that time that are as consistently good and well-structured as Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, or even Street Legal, many of the individual songs on these albums are excellent in and of themselves, even if the albums on which they are found can’t rank with Dylan’s greatest works.
Familiar themes are illuminated on several of the tracks. The classic-film-quoting “Seeing the Real You At Last,” for example, a jaunty rocker that Dylan has often featured in superior form in concert, references failed relationships. On “Clean-Cut Kid” Dylan makes his only explicit statement about Vietnam, though the anti-war sentiment here is not so much different from that on “John Brown.”“Trust Yourself” is a fairly direct plea to his audience, in much the same vein as “It Ain’t Me Babe,” while the haunting acoustic closer “Dark Eyes,” a throwback to Dylan’s pre-electric days in the early 60s that nonetheless does not feel out of place as the last song on the album, features provocative lyrics tethered to a simplistic melody.
One of the biggest criticisms of Empire Burlesque, however, has not been the songwriting but rather the production.In a bid to capture a “contemporary” sound, which he achieved with somewhat greater success on 1979’s Slow Train Coming, Dylan brought in a crack production team that layered synthesizers and thumping electronic beats over Dylan’s competent lyrics and melodies.The result is a sound that has not aged well over the years, showing all too plainly its mid-80’s origins.
On some of the songs, notably the tenderly sung “I’ll Remember You” and “Emotionally Yours,” the slick production values are downplayed enough for the melodies and simple yet effective lyrics to shine through.“Something Is Burning Baby” contains an ponderous, ominous beat that nonetheless fits in well with the tone of the song, adding rather than detracting from overall presentation.Elsewhere, particularly on the nightmarishly overproduced “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky,” the synth takes full charge, battering the lyrics into submission, while the decision to put the song in a minor key kills its energy and momentum.
For those who have access to the indispensable collection “The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3,” there is ample evidence of what might have been for several of these songs.An alternative version of “When The Night Comes Falling,” performed with a stripped down backing band and in an ever climbing major key, transforms the sonic mess on the official release into a clean, hard-rocking jam with a passionate vocal performance from Bob.The apocalyptically-tinged lyrics, while not outstanding, fit in well with Dylan’s long tradition of prophetic songwriting, from “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” to 2001’s “High Water.”The sound and lyrics on the alternative version of “Tight Connection To My Heart” are also superior to the album version.Like much of Dylan’s 80’s work, it seems some of the best material was, for unclear reasons, often left on the drawing board.
In the final analysis, an assessment of Empire Burlesque as an album depends on whether you want to value Dylan’s music for its pure poetry or for the pleasure it gives you as a complete listening experience.None of the songs on the album can compare to the lyrical brilliance of, say, a “Desolation Row” or “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” yet as complete compositions the newer songs can hold their own.Even with the flaws in production on several of the tracks, alternative recordings and standout concert performances of several of the songs show that the decade of the 80’s didn’t banish Dylan’s muse, it merely kept it evolving.