Thursday, November 01, 2007

Review #23: Empire Burlesque

1985 was certainly a strange year in music. The eighties sound was trudging along, Bruce Springsteen rocked the world with Born in the U.S.A. and the artists who made names for themselves in the sixties were trying to become contemporary, adding synthesizers and drum machines to their music. The Beach Boys would put out The Beach Boys and Paul McCartney was about to issue Press To Play. Bob Dylan, in one of his busiest and most active years, issued today’s album of discussion: EMPIRE BURLESQUE. The album came out about a year and a half after Infidels, an album that could have and should have been a masterpiece.
Unlike its predecessor,
Empire Burlesque features not a single song about a current political situation at the time and is largely based around pop love songs. Are they good pop love songs? Read on!

The album kicks off with Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?), which is one of the big songs on the album. The track, like all the songs on the album, has unrightfully been ignored on compilations, which is a shame. The track doesn’t have much of an underlying lyrical notice to it and it certainly isn’t “Jokerman” all over again. Essentially, it’s just about a guy who is anxious to find his love, which is certainly not a theme Dylan generally sticks to without making a sly sarcastic comment. What’s interesting is Dylan’s “woo-hoo”-ing during the extended fade-out.
Seeing The Real You At Last continues the love theme, but in a more familiar Dylan style. The eighties sound certainly isn’t here much. Mike Campbell, who is featured on nearly every song on the album, has a great lead guitar part and the horns fit perfectly.
As you could guess, another love song is next, this time in the guise of I’ll Remember You. The track is an odd, piano ballad/duet, with Madelyn Quebec. It’s a real departure for Dylan and feels just about as weird and un-Dylan-like as Desire’s “Sara”.
Clean Cut Kid breaks the opening trilogy of love songs. It’s an upbeat rocker, with a surprising topic about a kid going off to war and leaving, then coming back as a murderer and a different person. With Ron Wood of The Rolling Stones on lead guitar, it has a classic blues feel, with Dylan playing harmonica throughout and Wood using classic guitar riffs. The backing vocals give a classic doo-wop performance and the bridge gives all to the overall feel.
Next, the album goes back to love songs with Never Gonna Be The Same Again. The track is really mundane and is the shortest on the album. The synthesizer backing ruins the feel of the great guitar word by Syd McGuiness. The synths add a strange feeling of a fake harpsichord almost.
Trust Yourself opens the second half with this really funky keyboard line. My favorite part is the “Don’t trust me to tell you the truth…” line. So many people through Dylan’s career had taken him as their prophet that I guess he was just annoyed by it. (He still is…He recently said that anyone who tries to find messages in his songs has wasted their lives. Wait a second….) It’s a nice track that doesn’t have the love theme.
Love is the topic of the remaining songs, starting with Emotionally Yours. Like “I’ll Remember You”, it’s a slow piano ballad and is pure eighties schmaltz, complete with the accenting keyboard notes and a descending melody (“I will always be.../Emotionally yours.” You can hear it even as you read that line.)
When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky is the only track that lasts more than six minutes (and one of only three going over the five minute mark). It feels odd on the album. Does it have an eighties feel? No! Does it feel like classic Dylan? No! Well? It feels like…DISCO! Honestly, if I roller skated, this is the song I would do it to! However, the song’s lyrics is filled with pure Dylan word play (the title, for instance), but of course, it falls with some song clich├ęs (“You know all about it love/It’ll fit you like a glove”). It’s a nice pop track, but feels outdated, even surrounded by songs with eighties production.
Next is Something’s Burning, Baby. The tone is that of a march, with a snare drum sound (of course with the lingering eighties sound). As for the lyrics, Dylan takes a sort of “I see everything” turn with a lot of the verses featuring Dylan wondering what’s going on with his love.
The album closes with Dark Eyes. The track comes literally out of nowhere. It features just Dylan, a harmonica and an acoustic guitar. As the only track from the album to be honored to be on any compilation (it’s on the new DYLAN set), the topic is that Dylan sees the evil through everyone’s cover. I wonder if he meant that all he saw behind the day’s music production was awful stuff, shoved down our throats for commercial purposes. The line “They tell me to be discreet for all intended purposes” might mean that he is told that he has to keep his newfound secret just that, a secret. Nevertheless, this is the Dylan people wanted and, like the messages in many of Dylan’s songs, you have to search for it.
Even in 1985, this album’s existence was virtually ignored. A few months after its release, Biograph came out and suddenly people were awoken to the greatness of Dylan’s sixties work. This lead to a dismissal of his later work, which I believe still exists today. Nearly all of his work from Infidels up to World Gone Wrong has not been remastered to the likes of his albums in the sixties and seventies (although from the seventies, Self Portrait, New Morning and Pat Garret & Billy The Kid have yet to be remastered). This album particularly is in print, but this is the same copy from 1985 and it has never changed.
It is rather difficult to find at your average Best Buy, but it definitely is an album worth getting a hard copy of, rather than just downloading it. The sleeve actually has lyrics! I still haven’t completed the Dylan catalogue quite yet, but this has to be the first one with lyrics. Although, you could say that most of the lyrics mean nothing and that might be why Dylan was open enough to let them be printed. Nevertheless, it is a unique aspect of the artwork.
So, this is an album to get, if only for “Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?)” and “Dark Eyes”, but there’s also some nifty moments in between. “Clean Cut Kid” and “Trust Yourself” are also certainly highlights. All in all, it’s a mixed bag, but I’m leaning towards “O.K.”



clean cut kid said...

"The album closes with Dark Eyes. The track comes literally out of nowhere." Yeah! I felt that when I first heard it.

I agree "this is an album to get, if only for “Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?)” and “Dark Eyes”", but it continues to grow on me and I think 'I'll Remember You' is a great song; have you heard the 2002 version recorded for Masked & Anonymous?!

dsl89 said...

No, I haven't got the "Masked & Anonymous" soundtrack, though I guess I'll have to get it! I just finished getting all of his studio LPs, so now I'm working on the Bootleg series. Just got the RTR one...that's awesome.