Infidels is Bob Dylan‘s best album since the searing Blood on the Tracks nine years ago, a stunning recovery of the lyric and melodic powers that seemed to have all but deserted him. Under the aegis of Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, Dylan has produced eight vigorous songs that teem with self-effacing introspection and wit, free of the cant that’s weighted down his recent efforts. The songs on Infidels touch on religion and politics but are rooted in an ineffably deep sadness: the sadness of broken hearts and broken dreams, the sadness of middle age, the sadness that has been the wellspring of great rock & roll from Robert Johnson to “Every Breath You Take.” Flaming through that sadness is the sort of hell-hound-on-my-trail passion that you’d have to reach back ten years to find in Dylan’s recorded work.
Who could have expected so strong a rebound at this late date, especially after such flat, lifeless records as Saved or Shot of Love? Those LPs culminated a process that began with 1975’s Desire, wherein Dylan was purging himself of the metaphors and personas that had vaulted him to Sixties sainthood by rendering simple, limpid tales about his personal life. To hear the man of a thousand poses wailing “Sara, oh Sara/Don’t ever leave me, don’t ever go” couldn’t help but tear your heart out — you could just imagine how much pain Dylan must have been in to bare himself so nakedly.
All the same, it was an artistic dead end. Viewed in that context, Dylan’s conversion to Christianity — and the hectoring records that his conversion spawned — wasn’t so surprising. It was as if he had to adopt someone else’s world view in order to replace the stream of figurative language that once coursed through him. But Dylan’s audience did not take kindly to hearing their hero parroting beliefs that many of them had already rejected, and the idea of Dylan toeing anyone’s party line — even one as uplifting as agape — inspired some truly hateful responses.
Infidels sweeps away all those problems. In their place is a forty-two-year-old man with a still-keen eye that elegantly documents his world-weariness and frustration at the burdens of the past, but who, like his namesake, is singing in his chains like the sea. It wouldn’t be possible without the brilliant backing of the crack band that Mark Knopfler assembled: the rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Alan Clark of Dire Straits on organ, ex-Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor and Knopfler himself. Knopfler and his fellows have coaxed some careful work out of the notoriously studio-shy Dylan without sacrificing the spontaneity that has always marked his best records.
In the delicate “I and I,” Dylan struggles against the weight of old artistic identities, turning the Rastafarian expression for “God and Man” into a meditation on his own changes through time. As a new lover sleeps in his bed, Dylan rolls into a reverie about her past: “In another lifetime, she must have owned the world or have been faithfully wed/To some righteous king who wrote songs beside moonlight streams.” But Dylan draws a sharp contrast between his idyllic fantasy and his own history; he dreads rousing this woman because “if she wakes up now, she’ll just want me to talk/I got nothing to say/’Specially ’bout whatever was.” The Dylan of, say, Street Legal might have tossed off this observation with disdain — Geez, all these girls ever wanna talk about is Highway 61′ — but here, the tone is beneficent, resigned and uncritical, anguished yet wistful.
Equally tender is “Sweetheart like You,” which melds an arrangement reminiscent of “You’re a Big Girl Now” and a descending bass line out of the Band‘s “The Weight” or Jackson Browne‘s “These Days.” Here, Dylan’s singing is at its most marvelously expressive. Anyone who recalls his gutless vocalizing on Shot of Love‘s “Lenny Bruce” will thrill to the inflections on lines like “By the way, that’s a cute hat/And a smile so hard to resist/What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?” There’s the occasional groaner — “A woman like you should be at home/That’s where you belong” — but Dylan gracefully strikes a tone midway between the erotic and the avuncular, and the result sounds like an older man’s version of “Time Passes Slowly.”
When Dylan cranks it up, the results are no less satisfying; Infidels‘ two fierce rockers are as wacked-out as “From a Buick Six” or “Tombstone Blues.” In “Neighborhood Bully,” Dylan sings with the fire he showed on Before the Flood, spitting out lyrics as Taylor and Knopfler duel in the foreground; Dylan’s neighborhood bully is an unappreciated crusader; he breaks up lynch mobs, disrupts bomb factories, yet “A license to kill him/Is given out to every maniac.” More on the witty end of things is “Union Sundown,” where Dylan, bolstered on the choruses by Clydie King, checks the labels of practically everything he owns — shirts, tablecloths, automobiles — and concludes that you can’t get it made in the U.S.A. anymore. He takes a swipe at capitalism, but much of the blame seems to fall on unions: “The unions are big businessmen/And they’re going out like a dinosaur…/I can foresee the day when even your home garden is gonna be against the law.”
Dylan still has some weaknesses as a melodist, though. It takes a surprisingly plaintive chorus about a street-corner lady to rescue the plodding “License to Kill” from its own cheesy platitudes — “Man has invented his doom/First step was touching the moon” — and a shiny twelve-string solo to raise the choogling blues of “Man of Peace” above its many predecessors. The enigmatic “Jokerman,” however, lets Clark’s rolling organ and Shakespeare’s throbbing bass build upon a sighing, Supertramp-ish melody line.
The familiar whine of Dylan’s harmonica kicks off what is probably Infidels‘ most lyrically accomplished track, “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight,” where the sort of concerns that dominate the record come together for a final summation. As he has in the past, Dylan cleverly utilizes his public’s caring for him not just as an artist but as a human being — perhaps with an eye toward the lambasting he’s gotten of late. “I wish that I’d been a doctor/Maybe I’d have saved some life that’d been lost/Maybe I’d have done some good in the world/’Stead of burning every bridge I crossed.” Strong words from Bob Dylan, the man who built the cultural bridges that many of us walked over. All the same, though, it’s a grandstand play, and a little shameless at that — you can tell from the too casual tone of his voice that this statement isn’t meant to be taken at full value. More to the point, perhaps, is a later couplet, in which he addresses, as in “I and I,” the prison of his past achievements: “It’s like I’m stuck inside a painting that’s a-hangin’ in the Louvre/My throat starts to tickle and my nose itches, but I know that I can’t move.” It’s not a modest characterization, perhaps, but it’s not off the mark, either.
Throughout Infidels, Dylan seems to sound that theme. He knows he’s not the voice of a young generation anymore, that he’ll never write another “Like a Rolling Stone.” All he really seems to ask is that we understand these things, too. After years of crabbed or indifferent albums, Dylan is back in the rag-and-bone shop of the heart, making music of intensity and emotional directness. In his liner notes to The Basement Tapes, Greil Marcus quotes Dylan: “With a certain kind of blues music … you can just sit down and play it….You may have to lean forward a little.” On Infidels, Dylan is leaning forward again.
This story is from the November 24th, 1983 issue of Rolling Stone.