BOB DYLAN: INFIDELS (1983)
1) Jokerman; 2) Sweetheart Like You; 3) Neighborhood Bully; 4) License To Kill; 5) Man Of Peace; 6) Union Sundown; 7) I And I; 8) Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight.
And now, welcome to the Eighties — says the opening percussion roll by Sly Dunbar, resonating with an electronic echo that announces Dylan's first encounter with the wonderful world of hi-tech. It is actually a little ironic that, while gradually recovering from the Jesus haze and trying to reconnect with the modern world, Dylan ended up hiring Mark Knopfler as his producer: the one guy, out of all that crowd of new arrivals, that did not give a damn about all that «New Wave» crapola, sticking to the tried and true. And it remains unclear to me just how much Knopfler is actually responsible for the production, since he had to leave his post midway through in order to go on tour — then, when he came back, it turned out that Dylan himself had wrapped up production in his absence, too impatient about waiting.
In any case, Infidels is far from the most transparent case of bad production marring a Dylan record (that «honor» would probably have to go to Empire Burlesque), but it does not have a particularly vibrant vibe, either. As we know, except for those rare cases in his life where Dylan would come up with a genuinely wonderful melody, the musical success of his albums would always depend on that vibrancy — in the 1960s and 1970s alike, the man had an acute sense of smell and always knew when and how the ball was rolling, but by 1983, he was either showing signs of getting too old for that stuff, or perhaps his brainwaves were seriously affected by too much zealous Christianity. Whatever be the cause, Infidels simply does not have a good sound; it is an album that might have been infinitely better, had all the songs been recorded at a different time, in different conditions.
First and foremost, the rhythm section of «Sly and Robbie» is a joke. Nothing against Jamaica, but there isn't even a trace of reggae on this album anyway, and the electronic coloring of the drums and non-descript character of the bass just gives the record a plastic backbone, nothing more. Over this rhythm, Bob invites not one, but two famous and fairly incompatible guitarists to back him up: Knopfler himself, and Mick Taylor, who would also back Bob on the subsequent tour. But neither of the two shows much interest — Knopfler's licks and leads show but half of the passion that he had earlier infused in his playing on Slow Train, and Mick Taylor seems so thrilled about simply sharing the honor of playing with Bob that, throughout the record, he plays nothing but the simplest and boringest of old stockpiled Stonesy and Chicago blues riffs, usually of a rather predictable and monotonous nature. Complete the picture with Dire Straits' keyboardist Alan Clark and his penchant for adult contemporary soundscapes, and in terms of liveliness of the music, Infidels is trumped by any previous Dylan record, Saved included.
Which is especially pitiful since, by all accounts, Bob was actually on a songwriting roll. «Lost gems» like ʽFoot Of Prideʼ and ʽBlind Willie McTellʼ, later to be fished out for the Bootleg Series, all hail from this period, and, with just a few unfortunate exceptions, most of the songs here are potential masterpieces as well — strong lyrics, well-designed chorus hooks, intelligence and inspiration all present. But the rote, stagnant musical backing simply does not allow the hooks to properly blossom — and in addition, there is way too much echo on Bob's voice to preserve the «singer vs. listener intimacy» that was so important on his masterpieces.
ʽJokermanʼ, which opens the album, could very well apply for the ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ of the 1980s — same reference to a mysterious character, same barrages of sometimes nonsensical, sometimes epiphanic imagery, same impression of some visionary musical announcement that opens some sort of door to some sort of previously unseen destination, except that the celebratory spirit of ʽJokermanʼ is bitter and ironic, where ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ used to simmer with dreamy idealism. (Well, then again, it is fairly hard to write a song that is so much inspired by browsing through the Old Testament and have it dreamily idealistic). Could, yes, but the lyrics are easily the best thing about it — hearing them gently float atop a sanitized, chlorine-smelling seascape is one hell of a disappointment. Besides, couldn't he have found anything even slightly more impressive as the song's main hookline than "oh-oh, whoa-whoa, Jokerman!"? So many words for the verses — and such odd neglect for the chorus.
And so much for the best song on the album, even though ʽI And Iʼ comes spiritually close: the most Dire Straits-sounding track of the lot (Knopfler must have sensed the connection and saved his best world-weary licks for the proceedings), it is also curious in how Bob suddenly embraces the tenets of Judaism ("took a stranger to teach me, to look into justice's beautiful face / and to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth") — and makes it sound convincing, now finding his answer in the Father where it used to be the Son just a short while back. Then again, Bob himself is as much of a walking contradiction as the Holy Trinity, and after Infidels, nobody would probably be surprised to find the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavadgita, or the works of L. Ron Hubbard among his sources of inspiration. And if it helped him to make good records — heck, I say, here's to switching churches every six months. Unfortunately, there is also this small matter of production... and playing... and singing...
...and exercising better quality control over the songwriting. One thing that pissed off many a critic at the time, and I somewhat concur, is that several songs here were too overtly and bluntly politicized. A prime example is ʽNeighborhood Bullyʼ, musically riding all the way on a primitive blues-rock riff that only serves to provide a rhythmic base to Bob's allegorical endorsement of the State of Israel in its military conflict. Now even in his early days as a protest singer, the man was too smart to allow himself to be boxed in one corner: he may have rallied against war and injustice, but he never aligned himself with the Communist party or anything like that — and here we have a song that was all but adopted by the Zionist camp as their personal anthem, which is pushing things a bit too far. Nothing against anybody's right to share or even promote a pro-Israeli / anti-Palestine agenda (or vice versa), but not in the form of art, please. This is crude, misguided, and has far less reason to exist than ʽJoeyʼ or even ʽI Believe In Youʼ; it might have been simpler for the man to simply shout "I'm with you guys" from the stage during his subsequent short tour of Israel.
Another, less blatant, but fairly similar example is ʽUnion Sundownʼ, another political statement about the decline of U.S. industry and constantly growing dependance on foreign production. Well, first of all, the same subject had already been successfully (and with much more humor) tackled on John Entwistle's ʽMade In Japanʼ exactly one decade earlier, and that is just off the top of my head. Second, once again, the message is pinned to a deconstructed Chicago riff (Mick plays something that closely resembles a shortened version of the melody of ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ), the echo effects are unbearable, and nobody is even given a proper chance to solo. Who needs to listen to clichés about how "democracy don't rule the world" set to minimalistic, repetitive, deeply familiar melody? Okay, millions of Bad Religion fans around the world do that on a daily basis, but there used to be a fundamental qualitative difference between Bad Religion and Bob Dylan... not any more?
Likewise, ʽMan Of Peaceʼ is basically a re-write of ʽFrom A Buick 6ʼ for the next decade, but where there used to be organ-and-guitar fury a-plenty, we now have a mechanical backing and a vapid acoustic solo where it seems that the guitarist (be it Mark or Mick, I honestly don't know) was still figuring out the notes, quite surprised to find out that he has just performed on the master take. The electric solos (definitely Mick) are much better, but they do not do much to remedy the impression — and Bob's re-adoption of «the yell» for the sakes of denouncing Satan is unfortunate when compared to the much subtler ways of delivery of said message on Slow Train.
All of which goes to say that Infidels generally rides on the strength of its softer rather than rockier numbers — ʽJokermanʼ, ʽI And Iʼ, possibly ʽSweetheart Like Youʼ which also sounds so eerily like a Knopfler composition, I think it might have worked better with Mark taking lead vocal and Dylan reduced to harmonica blowing for a change. The country-tinged ʽDon't Fall Apart On Me Tonightʼ seems to want to close the album on a John Wesley Harding / Nashville Skyline note, but the electronic drums murder the slide guitars, and the vocals create no atmosphere whatsoever. It all sounds like he's trying to do something which he already did several times before, and failing to be even as good as it used to, let alone being better.
So is this all reason enough for a thumbs down? I'd probably stop just a few degrees short of it. As «bad» as the record is, in terms of overall context, it was a creative step forward for Bob — surreptitiously and without warning, he broke out of his religious seclusion and showed that he still had something to say, even if he did not quite manage to figure out how to say it properly, and sometimes said it too bluntly and crudely. ʽJokermanʼ alone, as the opening track, screams "REVIVAL!" so loudly that it becomes one of his most important songs of the decade, and no man shall see the face of ʽI And Iʼ and live to claim that Infidels has no redeeming qualities. Of course, today we know that Infidels marked the start of a lengthy decline rather than revival — all of the problems evident here would come to fruition on Bob's subsequent series of releases. But the one really big difference between Infidels and all that followed is that on Infidels, Bob generally does not whine: he barks, growls, yells, does whatever he can to come across as his usual «strong», lively, provocative character. The music may be lifeless, yes, due to some unfortunate decisions, but the man behind the music is definitely alive, even if it now takes the Old rather than New Testament to provide the necessary life support.
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