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...

Saturday, 22 August 2015

27. Empire Burlesque (1985)

During the 1980s many rock icons of the previous two decades began to incorporate new technologies and musical fashions into their work.  In many cases this led to a pile of steaming turds as these failed to sit well with the artist's trademark sound (see McCartney, the Stones, Beach Boys, Clapton, Rod, Elton - the list goes on and on), but a few others like Springsteen were more successful.  With Empire Burlesque Dylan falls into the first category; where previous album Infidels had begun to explore synthesised instrumentation, EB is drowning in the stuff and it seems to have been used carelessly in a desperate attempt to sound contemporary and mask inferior material.

Also like Infidels, Empire Burlesque was recorded sporadically over a long period of time (in this case about eight months), but this time instead of a small, focused band, Dylan used a variety of different musicians at several different studios.  He produced all of the sessions himself, handing the tapes over to turd-polisher-du-jour Arthur Baker to remix into the final record.  Baker's influence is immediately apparent on opener Tight Connection To My Heart, where I was struck by its clean, brittle 80s sheen.  First recorded during the Infidels sessions as Something's Got a Hold of My Heart, it's not a bad song at all; sunny, breezy and with some great input from guitarist Mick Taylor and drum and bass duo Sly and Robbie.  The harmonica of the original version (which can be heard on the Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3) is replaced here with a synth sound that's somewhere between harmonica and accordion, and is rather unpleasant to my ears, but overall I prefer this do-over, mainly due to the addition of female gospel-style backing vocals which suit the song very well.  Bob's voice is also sounding pretty great, something that at this stage of his career is not a sure thing from one song to next.  Here's the promo video, shot in Toyko, with our hero managing at the end to pull two women at once.  The old goat.

Sadly, after this promising start the quality of songwriting drops off pretty steeply for most of the rest of the album.  Like "Tight Connection", the next two tracks could both be interpreted as being about either the end of a relationship or a cooling of faith.  Seeing the Real You at Last features members of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers plus someone credited as just "Chops" on horns. Unfortunately the song has a weak melody and no real chorus to speak of, and that familiar doof-doof drum sound doesn't help.  Ballad I'll Remember You is utterly unmemorable; despite hearing it at least a dozen times over the past week I couldn't hum it to you now if you had a gun to my head.

More memorable is the twangy rocker Clean Cut Kid, which was first recorded during the Infidels sessions.  I can detect some real harmonica and piano, plus there are some lovely bluesy guitar licks from guest Ron Wood.  This straightforward song about the failure of a Vietnam veteran to adjust back to life on civvy street still has that hollow sound that dates it so well to the mid-80s, but compared to much of EB it feels positively organic, suiting Dylan's ragged vocals much better.  The insipid production of Never Gonna Be the Same Again is less forgiving, showing up a reedy, tuneless croak, backed by even more out of tune yelping from the female trio who don't even seem sure of the words, let alone where to come in.  Knowing Bob's way of working, it's most likely that they weren't afforded the opportunity to prepare, and probably thought that this take was just a run-through.  Even worse - in my opinion at least -  is the so very lame Trust Yourself, which suffers from banal lyrics, a weak melody and a dreadfully repetitious nature, with Jim Keltner's drumming almost entirely removed during the remix and replaced with nasty, clicky-clacky electronic percussion.  After all the preaching of Dylan's religious period it's refreshing to hear him instruct us: "Don't trust me to show you the truth, when the truth may only be ashes and dust".  Since he put much of the responsibility for this album first in the hands of engineers and then Baker, it seems he doesn't have much faith in himself at all right now.

Emotionally Yours is a little better, reminding me of Is Your Love In Vain? from Street-Legal.  It's quite the plodder, and the production is harsh, but the outgoing instrumental is pleasant enough. The worst part is Bob's painful singing, particularly the odd pronunciation in the final chorus of "I will al-ways bee-eee, mo-sha-na-lly yours" as if he's recorded each syllable separately and stuck them together with Sellotape.

On first listen to When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky I thought it a horrible, horrible sounding track.  Not because the production is so of its time, as under other circumstances I absolutely love many of its ingredients - gated reverb on the drums, big dumb bass, histrionic guitar widdling, synth horns, sharp orchestral stabs - but because they are so shoddily, haphazardly thrown together.  It has that huge, propulsive feeling of epic-ness that graced the title sequences of so many 1980s movies, but the whole thing is so clumsily tossed together that it's a messy old racket indeed.  I've come around to it a bit since, but I still prefer the original version recorded with Roy Bittan and Steve Van Zandt (available on the Bootleg Series 1-3) for its major-key E-Street optimism as opposed to the busy, minor-key apocalyptic pop here.

The apocalyptic overtones continue on the funereal march of Something's Burning, Baby, whose biblical references include Judgement Day.  Bob's voice on this is shockingly nasal, and like the previous track there are some highly irritating shadow vocals from Madelyn Quebec.  The overall sound is thin, and the song seems more like a demo than anything else on Empire Burlesque. Add to all this the wailing bvs and what you get is a proper stinker.

Thank goodness then that Dylan required a tenth track to finish off the album.  The hymnal Dark Eyes was written at the eleventh hour and is performed solo with just harmonica and some simple acoustic plucking for accompaniment.  On an earlier album it would have been a fairly minor song, but after what's gone before it stands out as a masterclass in songwriting and stark, understated performance.  Bob's cracked, weary voice doesn't have to compete with loud, clashing background music and he once again sounds like a man in control of what he has to say.

The production style of Empire Burlesque suits Dylan about as well as the designer jacket he's posing in on the album cover.  A voice like his doesn't match the precise, synthetic pop sounds of the era's chart hits, which better suit the clear, strong voices of newer singers such as Phil Oakey, Alison Moyet, Annie Lennox and a thousand other, younger acts of the 1980s.  The scattergun use of technological innovations in post-production also works to the record's detriment; instead of being passed to Baker for remixing I think that it would have benefited from having had a clear-eyed, experienced producer from the start to keep a hand on the tiller. Sadly by the time Baker got his hands on the album it had no direction or strong identity, and coupled with some very weak songwriting what resulted was something half-baked and covered in gaudy sprinkles.  Bob must have been feeling rather uninspired in trying to sound current and fresh; this is the first time in his career where he's seen to be following trends rather than doing his own thing and setting them.

What do you think of Empire Burlesque?  I'd particularly like to hear from you if you're a fan.  Do leave a comment below.

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  1. I'd love to comment but I haven't listened to this tosh since1985. Shiver!!

  2. I'd love to comment but I haven't listened to this tosh since1985. Shiver!!

    1. Haha! All you need are the three clips I've included! Glad to see you've finally worked out how to comment here as well as FB (albeit twice).

    2. Mr Technology, that's me, I said Mr Technology that's me