Empire Burlesque puts the snarl back in Bob Dylan‘s music. This is not a case of mere pop-radio playability; Dylan achieved that amid the burnished, lushly rolling rhythms of 1983’s Infidels, which finally brought him into the Modern World, after a three-, maybe four-, album residence on the moon. No, his twenty-ninth LP is something else: a blast of real rock & roll, funneled through a dense, roiling production — custom-chopped-and-channeled by remix wiz Arthur Baker — that affords Dylan more pure street-beat credibility than he has aspired to since … well, pick your favorite faraway year. Could there be actual hits hunkering here? Is Dylan “back”? Again? One is tempted to trumpet some such tidings.
But Empire Burlesque is nothing as straightforward as a simple return to rock & roll form for Dylan. True, the album’s surging rockers — particularly the slunky funk of “Trust Yourself,” the steam-driven “Seeing the Real You at Last,” and the record’s ravishing centerpiece, “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky” — reel the listener in with a muscular urgency that’s been missing from much of Dylan’s latter-day (read, born-again) work. Once hooked, though, one soon realizes his otherworldly spiritual agenda (and his consequent disdain for earthly political stratagems — note the album’s title) remains as uncompromising as it was on Slow Train Coming or Saved. The dour evangelical fervor of Dylan’s Jesus-gonna-getcha phase may have receded, but his dark, apocalyptic fatalism still rumbles through the lyrics.
If the frosty fundamentalist message seems more compelling this time around — at least as it crops up in the album’s standout rock tracks — it’s because, for the first time, the music rivals the words for pure pugnacity. (Dylan’s earlier born-again bands were dismally dinky, and Infidels, at another extreme, was polished and almost elegiac in parts.) Then, too, the message has evolved somewhat: “Don’t put your hope in ungodly man/Or be a slave to what somebody else believes” is hardly an invitation to a beer blast; neither is it the burning box seat in hell reserved for unbelievers in earlier screeds. And when Dylan laments the social toll exacted by “the falling gods of speed and steel” or the brain-fried fate of an all-American boy packed off to fight an insupportable Asian war — “They took a clean-cut kid/And they made a killer out of him” — his hard-nosed moralism begins to converge with more broadly based humanist concerns.
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None of which is to suggest that Dylan is now hedging his convictions for commercial purposes; he is only more artfully elusive in presenting them. The lyrical images in Empire Burlesque, and the sometimes ambiguous point of view, are as slippery as a lapful of fresh-caught fish, but Dylan’s basic spiritual stance remains as austere as ever, and as problematic. His attempted synthesis of rock & roll fire and philosophical ice is inevitably unsettling: sure, he’s been at this sort of thing since Highway 61 Revisited, but back then everyone assumed he was being droll. These days one hesitates to laugh.
This reservation, though crucial, need not immediately preoccupy the first-time listener. The best stuff stands on its own musical legs. Dylan, for the first time in his career, produced the basic tracks himself (with a shifting agglomeration of players ranging from Infidels veterans Mick Taylor, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare to such raucous recruits as Ron Wood, various members of Tom Petty‘s Heartbreakers and assorted East Coast horns). Baker added depth, synthetic detail and massive percussive punch to the final mix. The resounding and mysterious “When the Night Comes Falling” recalls the soaring aural expansiveness of the Jimi Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower” and the electrical intensity of Dylan’s own “Hurricane.” “Trust Yourself” and “Seeing the Real You at Last” pulsate with sinewy R&B power, and the delightfully jivy “Clean Cut Kid” predictably eclipses the recent version of this song by the Textones. (This is Dylan’s first direct reference to the Vietnam fiasco, and its sense of sorrow is admirably untainted by any hint of creeping antipacifist revisionism. It wasn’t home-front hippies who subverted U.S. troops, Dylan says, it was their own political and military masters: “They gave him dope to smoke, drinks and pills/A jeep to drive, blood to spill/They said, ‘Congratulations, you got what it takes’/They sent him back into the rat race without any brakes.”)
Those four songs, which form the core of Empire Burlesque, are interlarded with six other very different tracks. One of them, the single “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)” is a lilting, midtempo tune with an archetypally Dylanesque harmonic structure. Three of the others — “I’ll Remember You,” the limpidly affecting “Never Gonna Be the Same Again” (in which Dylan sings, “I don’t mind leaving/I’d just like it to be my idea,” the album’s funniest line) and the faintly icky “Emotionally Yours” — are cast in the form of love ballads. And the album’s two concluding cuts, “Something’s Burning, Baby” and “Dark Eyes” are unblinking invocations of the Last Days: “Something is burning, baby, something’s in flames/There’s a man going round calling names.” The import of these last two songs is startlingly apocalyptic, and they send one scanning through the preceding eight sets of lyrics. And, sure enough, some of them turn out to be so obliquely insular there’s no telling what they’re really about. To whom is “I’ll Remember You” actually addressed? Is “Seeing the Real You at Last” perhaps aimed at Dylan’s own faithless and now-fallen-away fans? What’s this line in “Tight Connection” about “Never could learn to drink that blood and call it wine”? The old Dylan game, with its circular illuminations, goes ever on.
Because of the basic nature of its material, however elliptically presented, Empire Burlesque is bound to confound and exasperate many listeners. I continue to miss the emotional specificity of past Dylan masterworks, like “Tangled Up in Blue,” and grow weary of his woozier generalities (“Emotionally Yours” could be about a lover, or it could be about Jesus; it’s so lacking in detail, I can’t imagine how anyone could care). But I am heartened when he cranks up and rocks out, as he does here. Dylan may never resolve the tension between spiritual conviction and rock & roll kicks, but I like to think he’s straying in the right direction.
This story is from the July 4th, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone.