The eighties was a particularly difficult time for Dylan fans. Infidels and Oh Mercy, widely considered to be the best records during this time have also been largely frustrating. Perfectly realised recordings were abandoned in favor of lesser tracks. The most serious of these omissions were "Blind Willie McTell" on Infidels and "Series Of Dreams" from the Oh Mercy sessions. Everyone has been wondering how much better those two albums would been had the superior outtakes been included. Perhaps due to this reason, this has also affected my judgment on his other works that have been neglected during the eighties.
Recently, I decided to give another spin to a lesser known album and was delightfully surprised by my response to it the second time round. When I first heard Empire Burlesque, I found it to be very artificial and mechanical, lacking Dylan's usual first-take approach that has served him well every now and then. The synthesizers and drum machines did not help either. Dylan was doing soul with Motown sounding divas in the background? A couple of tracks stood out, but then this is customary even with Dylan's weakest albums.
Having heard the record a second time, however, has somewhat changed my opinion of it. True, the album still sounded stiff and outdated with its electronic abundance, but the songs are getting through this time. Even Dylan's singing comes out more convincing, or is it just me? Nevertheless, I seem to be enjoying re-listening to this one more than I do with say, Infidels. In fact, the latter album now seems to be quite bland in terms of arrangement and production, and that is probably due more to the over professional approach on that record than the songs themselves. But, Infidels is still a very good record.
Having heard the original version of "Tight Connection To My Heart" on the The Bootleg Series, I was surprised at the way Dylan had rewritten the song. What had sounded pleasant and sweet is transformed into a slightly bitter song on Empire Burlesque. Some of the original lyrics have been retained and they are typical Dylan poetry. But the immediate appeal of the song is unquestionably its catchy melody and very fine Dylan performance throughout, making this one of the most accessible Dylan songs ever. It also helps that the production sounds much more contemporary than some of his previous recordings, what with chorus girls and surprisingly soulful vocals from Dylan himself. This delightful Dylan gem makes the perfect opening to the entire record.
The soulful mood on this album is further enforced by a number of punchy numbers filled with Memphis horns type of fills, most notably on "Seeing The Real You At Last" and "Clean Cut Kid". The latter track, in particular, is brilliant in its lyrical content. It sees Dylan addressing the Vietnam issue in a more direct manner than before, relating the account of a young soldier going to Vietnam with a pride full of patriotism and coming back home totally disillusioned. The imagery is so strong that it even surpasses what movies like Oliver Stone's Born On The Fourth Of July tries to do in films.
The rest of the album is of a more personal nature, seeing Dylan returning to the simple balladry of earlier albums like Nashville Skyline. "Emotionally Yours" and "I'll Remember You" seem to be perfect companions for "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" and "Lay Lady Lay", except that they are touched up with a more elaborate and modern production. The surprising thing is Dylan seems to be very involved in the singing this time, putting effort into every syllable and musical note.
The weakest song of the set here, "Trust Yourself" seems to be just a backing track that Dylan decided to put words to. It sounds almost unlike Dylan at times. "When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky", however, recalls the great Dylan epic "All Along The Watchtower" with its apocalyptic imagery and dark howling atmosphere. And howling is how I would describe Dylan's vocals in this powerful track that is marginally ruined by Arthur Baker's overproduction. Many have argued that Dylan should have stayed with the more loose feel of the version that appeared on The Bootleg Series and I am inclined agreed on that one. As such, "When The Night Comes Falling" is a flawed gem.
"Something Is Burning, Baby" is almost anthemic in sound and has a certain Celtic feel to it. This sets up the final song on the album and it is a classic. "Dark Eyes" sees Dylan returning to just guitar and harmonica. Without the band, Dylan seems to be just singing to himself for his own leisure as he recites his poetry with a slight slur. The folk melodic structure of the piece is tailor made for him as the song seems perfectly suited for Dylan's World Gone Wrong of traditional folk covers.
Empire Burlesque is not classic Dylan. It may not even be excellent, but there is certainly something about it that has me coming back to it again and again. It could be the songs, or the cheesy production even. Whatever it is, it is not another one of Dylan's dismissable records. In fact, it is one of his most listenable in recent times. There is a certain appeal about it that seems to indicate that Dylan cannot be written off even when he is not performing at his best. Even when he is just doing par, Dylan can still be fascinating. That, perhaps, is the hallmark of a true talent that is Bob Dylan.
2nd June 1997