Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Friday, 7 August 2015

25. Infidels (1983)

At this stage in the BobBox we're now very much in the 1980s, and the production values of this decade are beginning to make themselves heard.  Infidels was recorded at New York's Power Station studios, with production duties split between former collaborator Mark Knopfler and Dylan himself.  Enlisting the help of Dire Straits keyboardist Alan Clarke, drum and bass legends Sly and Robbie, and former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, Bob took more time and effort than usual in the recording, overdubbing and mixing of this, his 22nd studio album, perhaps in an attempt to move with the times and bolster his sales after his last three rather preachy albums hadn't exactly set the charts on fire.

After the opening rattle of Dunbar's drums we're straight into the vocal of Jokerman and it's clear that although the sermonising has disappeared, Jesus is very much still a part of Dylan's world. Over a lilting Caribbean backdrop augmented with atmospheric organ from Clarke and expressive guitar from Knopfler that acts almost as a backup vocal, the lyrics conjure up powerful imagery that references both Christian and Jewish scripture.  Although the overall message eludes me, Jokerman is an incredible piece of work, raising my hopes that Infidels might mark a return towards the potent mixture of vivid surrealism and social commentary of Dylan's past.  These hopes would be rather dashed as the album unfolded, but Jokerman is still one of his best songs to date.  And now that we're firmly into the MTV age there's even a promo video with some fine lip-synching from Bob, which is a bit of a novelty.

Sweetheart Like You is equally atmospheric but is brought down by a slight melody and one particular lyric that might been seen as condescending at best and misogynistic at worst; "You know, a woman like you should be at home, That's where you belong, Watching out for someone who loves you true, Who would never do you wrong".  Apart from this minor mis-step, the words, which appear to represent one side of a barroom conversation, are intriguing with no doubt layers of meaning lying beneath.  I love Dylan's voice here; it's gluey as hell but tender, and the added echo does it no harm.  The song itself is very Dire Straits-y with a fabulous solo from Knopfler playing us out.

After two pleasant but soporific numbers, the up-tempo Neighborhood Bully did a good job of jerking me awake, but not in a good way.  The clumsy, sarcastic defence of Israel that reduces a complex situation to simplistic rhetoric is one thing, but in addition the song is a poor attempt to rock out 80s-style.  The generic guitar riff is tiresome and there's no chorus to break up the eleven - yes ELEVEN - verses, making the four and a half minutes feel neverending.  Taylor turns in some nice bluesy licks, but these are buried so far back in the mix that they may as well not be there.  Like on most of the album Dunbar is relegated to the role of drum machine, the relentless doof-doof-doof seemingly all that was asked of him.  What a missed opportunity and waste of talent.

When I first saw License To Kill on the tracklisting I was pretty sure it wasn't going to be a Gladys Knight cover.  At 3:38 minutes it's the shortest song here, and the time is spent dealing with Man's self destruction, taking in environmental concerns, space travel and war.

"Now they take him and they teach him and they groom him for life,
And they set him on a path where he's bound to get ill,
Then they bury him with stars,
Sell his body like they do used cars"

The melody bears a strong resemblance to SeƱor and the harmonica solo towards the end adds a welcome dimension, letting the song breathe.  Like Jokerman it exemplifies the way in which the various elements of Bob's new band are able to superbly meld together, although the robotic drumming is still a drawback.  If only Sly had been given license to drum, this could have been an even better track.

Country rocker Man of Peace could have done with a livelier drum track, but it too is stuck with that dull thud.  For me it's the weakest song on Infidels; in terms of song structure and melody we've heard it all before and better.  Some unimaginative harmonica mingles with a Taylor solo to pleasant but generically bluesy effect, along with some twangy picking from Knopfler.  Clarke's organ stabs are so low in the mix that they're barely audible without headphones, and as the longest song here it drags.  The lyrics are more interesting than the music, based on 2 Corinthians 11:5-15 ('Satan transforms himself into an angel of light') and using blues imagery ("..the howling wolf will howl tonight, the king snake will crawl") in order to illustrate Dylan's disillusionment with religious hypocrisy as he sees it.

The aura of dissatisfaction continues with Union Sundown, which questions America's outsourcing of manufacturing, as well as again seeming to condemn space exploration.  The former is a bit rich coming from the man who's outsourced his band membership to three Brits and two Jamaicans, and in terms of the latter, given his paranoid attitude on some songs of late perhaps he was worried about the possibility of future clothing factories on Mars....  The music has a driving Southern rock vibe; in fact it sounds a lot like a Chris Rea record, especially with the heavy vocal echo employed.  After disliking Union Sundown for some time it eventually grew on me pretty well, although again it suffers from a particularly harsh drum sound, and Clydie King's faint backing vocals are another casualty of a poor mix.

Sly is finally allowed to do his thing (well, a bit) on I & I, which begins with a lovely dubby rhythm as he locks in with Robbie's bass.  From the title I was dreading this being an out-and-out reggae track, but over luminous piano and some stunning licks from Knopfler, Bob's internal struggles play out while a strange woman sleeps in his bed.  Like Jokerman it's a high point of the album; introspective, mysterious and just a little spooked.

The sense of self doubt persists into Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight, addressed to a lover.  The reverb on the drums is just too much, and near the end Bob's harmonica and the lead guitar clash badly.  I can't imagine the meticulous Knopfler allowing this to happen; I'm assuming that this was part of the mixing/overdubbing that Dylan continued to do after Mark had left to go on tour, that he later disowned.  Bob himself later admitted that the songs had been much better before this 'tampering'.

And then it's over.  Infidels runs for just 42 minutes - mercifully short, the less charitable might say, until you realise that Dylan's last-minute fiddling meant that several superior songs like the funky Southern rocker Foot of Pride and the outstanding lament Blind Willie McTell were left off. For whatever reason, he wasn't happy with the way they'd turned out and so gave up trying to capture whatever it was that he'd envisioned, but listening to them now on the Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 it's clear that they'd have bumped up what is essentially a third-tier Dylan album to a higher level.

For this reason Infidels is a frustrating album.  It's also quite a boring one, as the good points you'd associate with having Mark Knopfler at the helm - careful, thoughtful arrangements and recording - are accompanied by the dire traits that also come with him, i.e. a safe, reserved airlessness that impresses but fails to excite.  Even with an ex-Rolling Stone on board it all just feels too clean.  He succeeded in giving the album a strong cohesion, and the contemporary touches are for the most part subtle, fitting in well with Bob's songwriting, which has itself taken a turn for the better by still being informed by his faith but managing to leave the dogma behind. The rather pedestrian AOR sound, coupled with the muted, slightly depressing mood meant that it took many plays before all of the songs stood out for me.  I feel that the talents of Sly and Robbie were much underused, and although I enjoy Knopfler's unique guitar sound, it dominates the record - it could have done with quite a bit more Taylor, who also is also under-employed, or perhaps just buried in the final mixes.

Bob's questionable choices over tracklistings for both this album and the last, plus his difficulty in settling on a producer then overriding their decisions leads me to conclude that his judgement was a bit off at the beginning of the new decade.  I'd been wondering who the infidels of the album title refer to (Christians, Jews, non-believers, his fans?), but as he seems to have lost faith in himself, perhaps the infidel here is in fact Dylan.

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Do you like Infidels?  Hate it?  Let me know in the comments below.

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