BOB DYLAN: EMPIRE BURLESQUE (1985)
1) Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?); 2) Seeing The Real You At Last; 3) I'll Remember You; 4) Clean Cut Kid; 5) Never Gonna Be The Same Again; 6) Trust Yourself; 7) Emotionally Yours; 8) When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky; 9) Something's Burning, Baby; 10) Dark Eyes.
So Infidels had some good songs and a troubled, inadequate sound — but if you really want to learn the meaning of the word «misproduced», look it up in an imaginary encyclopaedia and chances are, a 45-year old Bob Dylan with a puzzled look on his face will materialize in your imagination and say, «See this jacket that looks like I've just dragged it through a tub of lime paint? Actually, it fits me about as well as the production style on my twenty-first studio album matches the songs I have written for it. You don't happen to be a recording engineer, by any chance? I've been sitting in this bottle for ages...» ...oh, never mind.
One hypothetical version of «the truth» is as follows: Dylan never, not for once, truly «lost» his songwriting skills throughout the Eighties. The melodies on Empire Burlesque may not count among his most imaginative, but when we get down to it, they aren't all that inferior to anything he'd done in the previous decade, or even decades. The lyrics do range from cringeworthy (particularly when he is in one of his «mass-moralizing» moods) to insightful, but consistently show Bob's usual dedication to his craft. And he even makes some effort to sing here, rather than just whine and mumble — age issues getting worse and worse with every new year, so that his high «wheezing» notes are now more painful than ever, but many of the songs still show strong will and power, which used to be his saving grace even under certain off-key circumstances.
All of this means that at the heart of Empire Burlesque lies a really strong, emotionally attractive and intellectually useful collection of songs. It also boasts a fairly diverse and promising cast-of-thousands: unfortunately, «Sly and Robbie» from Infidels are retained on many of the songs, but several members of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers are there to rectify the deal, including the band's fabulous guitarist Mike Campbell, and even Ronnie Wood drops by to add his guitar parts to the basic rock'n'roll of ʽClean Cut Kidʼ. With all these ingredients, it could have been a really good record, with a healthy roots-rock / folk-rock sound that we hadn't really heard from Bob since the days of Rolling Thunder.
And now the bad news. Although the credits say «produced by Bob Dylan», there wasn't really any particular production job that Mr. Zimmerman could carry out here — being either paranoidally afraid of, or, more likely, completely disinterested in technological progress. Instead, he just surreptitiously handed those duties over to his recording engineer, Arthur Baker, a guy who was mostly famous those days for producing «special dance remixes» for rock'n'roll artists, as well as collaborating with New Order on such songs as ʽThieves Like Usʼ. The results were not just «unfortunate» — they were a real friggin' catastrophe.
It isn't just the all-pervasive electronic drums or the plastic, lifeless bass sound this time: it is virtually everything. Sterile keyboards, inspired guitar solos that get drowned in the mix, echo-drenched vocals that put the singer in an even deeper well than he occupied on Infidels — everything follows the great call of «modernization at all costs», resulting in an overall sound that has nothing to do with Dylan and who or what he really is. If you are willing to look past this production style, by all means, do so, and you may eventually find yourself rewarded. But if you are not one of those who need their daily dose of a Dylan epiphany, then why, you might ask yourself, should you ever want to listen to an «electropop Dylan» or an «adult contemporary Dylan», when there is plenty of quality Dylan lying around?
Arguably the worst nightmare of this record is ʽWhen The Night Comes Falling From The Skyʼ, a song that began its life as an uplifting polyphonic rocker with a Born In The USA kind of sound (the original version has since then been made available on Bootleg Series) and ended it as a heavily sanitized, depressing electronic dance track. Where «depressing» applies both to the change of mood from «angry / castigating / condescending» to «panicky / whiny / pathetic», and to the effect that the implosive electronic percussion casts on your nerves. It is particularly ironic that the final take was almost certainly influenced by ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ — the same «ominous» type of introduction, borrowing a part of those original chords — but if you are going to step in the same river twice, you might at least want to check for any recent dumps. This here is Bob Dylan, miscast as Kim Wilde; all that's missing is some of those hot dance moves to get the blood boiling. (Actually, he is trying to rock it just a little bit in the accompanying video, but I seriously doubt any of the kids were properly impressed. What's he got on Madonna?).
According to Ron Wood's memories, the man just didn't give a damn to whatever was happening around him — he wrote it the way he wanted, strummed his guitar and blew his harp the way he wanted, sang it the way he wanted, then left everything else, from overdubbing to mixing, to Fate. Maybe his idea was that Fate would, somehow, intervene and go on spreading her usual blessing, but this just wasn't going to be 1966 all over again, and much of what was going around was just plain crappy, to say the least. ʽTight Connection To My Heartʼ is one of his best contributions to the decade, a potentially gorgeous love anthem that could have been a masterpiece — but oh, those drums, oh, that robotic bass, oh, that awful echo! As if this wasn't enough, the credits list Mick Taylor as lead guitar player on that one, but where the hell is his better half? Who cut off something like half of the frequencies of his sound? Is that supposed to be «modern»?
It really becomes all the more painful when you start struggling to look past the «ragged glitz» and see these songs in their primary, imaginary incarnations. ʽEmotionally Yoursʼ is a beautiful ballad that should rank among Dylan's tenderest achievements (probably inspired by his romance with the backup singer, soon-to-be wife Carolyn Dennis) — and it certainly deserves a much more tasteful arrangement than the adult-contemporary keyboard soup it got here. ʽClean-Cut Kidʼ, with Wood on lead guitar, could have been a decent-sounding Stones-style rocker with a poignant, if a bit too banal, message on the evil influence of The System — instead, looks like The System's most evil influence has been on the recording and mixing process of the song itself. ʽSomething's Burning, Babyʼ has a simplistic folk melody that could be taken in any direction — so why did the direction have to be this blend of simplistic New Age with equally simplistic New Wave, as if the listener is being shoved face down into a set of Casios and rhythmically dragged across all the switches and transistors?..
Small wonder that the only song that truly stood out back then and truly stands out up to this day is the coda of ʽDark Eyesʼ — credit must be given where it is due, as it was Arthur Baker's idea to finish the album on a minimalistic note: just Bob, his acoustic, and harmonica, like in the good old (oh so old) days. Dylan caught up on the idea, and came up with a song here that would not at all feel out of place on any of his early acoustic albums; you could very well swap it places with ʽRestless Farewellʼ, for instance, on the condition of getting a time machine to a 23-year old Dylan to sing it in a younger voice. He even falls back upon some of his old beatnik-style poetry here, but the overall subject, one of «total focus on beauty», remains clear and poignant. Too bad he was not able to focus on much of anything else, though.
When it comes to any sort of judgement, I am at a total loss here — it is one of those rare pesky situations where solid, appreciable substance violently clashes against abysmal form, and in honor of its relative rarity, I would like to have a special honorary thumbs down for what might just be the worst production on a Dylan album ever (unless we live long enough to see Lady Gaga's Meat Dress produce him an electro-pop extravaganza), but to reserve a separate thumbs up for some of his most inspired and tightest songwriting of the entire decade. There! And now that it's done, I, too, want a lime paint jacket and a puzzled look on my face.
Check "Empire Burlesque" (CD) on Amazon