Monday, August 31, 2009

Bob Dylan 29: Empire Burlesque

For some reason Bob decided he needed to sound “contemporary”, which in 1985 translated to a slick sheen over painstakingly constructed backing tracks. (And a shiny Miami Vice jacket too, though he’d been rocking the two-day stubble look for years.) Forget the fact that he worked best on the fly; the songs on Empire Burlesque were repeatedly tweaked so that by the time he got around to finishing the vocals they just didn’t fit. The result was a major letdown.
With a Bob-less intro that lasts an interminable twenty full seconds, “Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)” was an odd choice for a single, and a worse video. “Seeing The Real You At Last” isn’t much better, as it features too many horns and his “soulful” phrasing doesn’t convince. Strip it down to just guitars and we might have something. A near-duet with Madelyn Quebec, “I’ll Remember You” is very sweet, but the noisy if well-intentioned “Clean Cut Kid” kills it, with Ron Wood doing his Keith Richards impressions all the way through. Another attempt at tenderness, “Never Gonna Be The Same Again”, simply tries too hard, with the vocalists mixed too far up front.
Side two is equally frustrating. “Trust Yourself” is something of a riposte to his own “Gotta Serve Somebody”, but “Emotionally Yours” is another hidden gem. The best of the ballads here, it would be a lot better if he’d canned the fake strings, as they distract from the other musicians. (The O’Jays covered this a few years later and gave it a much better reading.) “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky” got a lot of press for its apocalyptic vision — another epic! the critics raved — but there’s just nothing there save too many instruments shackled to a production familiar from “It’s Raining Men”. (And to make matters worse, it was also picked for a video, and one that would have us believe Dave Stewart of Eurythmics—who happened to be the “director”—was the genius behind the song, as if he came up with the sub-“Watchtower” riff.) “Something’s Burning, Baby” continues the poor use of that epithet in song titles, and mostly staggers along over one chord. Thankfully, the purely unadorned “Dark Eyes” ends the proceedings in best afterthought mode.
While Empire Burlesque got some praise for its embrace of modern production techniques, even back then it sounded dated. Bruce Springsteen was to comment that if anyone else had written those lyrics (which are reproduced in full on the inner sleeve) they would have been hailed as the next Dylan, but coming from the pen of the original they came off as water treading. Popular dance remixer Arthur Baker is supposedly responsible for the overall sound, but ultimately Dylan should have had the last word. Thirty different names are credited as playing on the sessions, and it’s hard to appreciate these songs for all the extra decorations. With a tighter, smaller set of players in the studio (such as limiting them to Jim Keltner and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, hint, hint) these songs could have gotten better care.

Bob Dylan Empire Burlesque (1985)—


  1. A horrible record amid a long series of horrible records. From 1980 until he started over with the two acoustic records in the 90s, Dylan made little but unlistenably and indefensibly bad music.

  2. I agree with almost everything mentioned in this review and I still love the album.

  3. Fond memories of June 10, 1985 (?) and the first song... I like the album But that first song: I just love Tight Connection. Kind of like the jacket Bob's wearing too...

  4. I think Bob stole that jacket from Rod Stewart.

    Being the chiold of the 80s that I am, "Tight Connection" was one of my first real regular exposures to Dylan's music. (The very first was probably "Jokerman," which I liked). I remember seeing the video at the time and thinking that he seemed like an old man from another era trying unsuccessfully to stay hip, like when one of my friends' dads would try to impress us by using what was then the latest slang.

    A quarter century later, now that I am older,(hopefully) a little wiser and having infinitely more appreciation for Dylan as a musician, I still think that my initial impression was correct.


  5. Tight Connection isn't as good as the demo from the Bootleg Series, but I still think it's a winning and expressive vocal performance and one of Dylan's better songs from the 80s.

    I love Trust Yourself, which is one of Dylan's best straight-ahead rock songs and has great, ambivalent lyrics.

    Dark Eyes is great, as everyone agrees.

    Overall, worth buying the album for.

  6. Empire Burlesque is way better than Modern Times Or Together Through Life...

  7. I find lots to like in Empire Burlesque, Together Through Life on the other hand ...

  8. Tight Connection, while suffering a bit from the production, is overall a very winning single: strong vocal performance by Bob, soulful understated harmonies, great hooks, very clever lyric -- a very underated lyric in fact.

  9. I love the album- but I think it would be interesting if it could be re-issued completely reworked in the ways that you would have preferred.

    Yes to what Springsteen said- Dylan is always compared against himself rather than others.
    As "nancy" said in highwater "... Great as you are man, you'll never be greater than yourself..." to which bob adds- "I said I didn't really care..."

    I really do love the album- emotionally yours being my least favorite on it- one of my least favorite of Bob's songs- but I'd rather listen to it than so much of the over-produced music out now... not to mention the inane lyrics that are written.
    Even in my least favorite Bob songs there are lines that just pierce you, or make you shake your head and wonder "wtf was he thinking-" which is entertaining in itself, or make you laugh out loud.
    One of my favorites in Empire- which does all three is "I had to move fast- and I couldn't with you around my neck..."
    that's the reason he has been "my imaginary boyfriend." ;-)

    Damn, the man knocks my socks off, even after 40 plus years.

  10. Though it's dismissed in the post, "Seeing the Real You at Last" is the highlight of the album for me and one of my favorite Dylan recordings. It's got the snap of some of the "Slow Train Coming" tracks and the exuberant nastiness of "Positively 4th Street."

  11. "Dark eyes" is brilliant, "Tight connection" is pretty good, rest is plain boring. Band plays without inspiration. Not one of Bob´s better efforts.