Empire Burlesque

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My interest in Bob Dylan happened to perfectly coincide with the peak period of Dylan’s lameness. Empire Burlesque was the first new Dylan album that I bought (technically, the first new Dylan cassette – I did not, at the time, have my own turntable). I was fifteen years old.

Here’s one true thing that you could say about Empire Burlesque: no one was ever impressed that you owned a copy of it. For some reason I have a very detailed memory of bringing it to a classmate’s house one day when we were working on a group project. Somehow it got put on. Everyone asked for it to be taken off.

The videos were lame. The songs were lame. The synth overlays were particularly lame. Dylan was someone who had been cool when my parents got married, but in 1985 there was nothing left there. Hang it up, old man.

Perhaps because I had paid for it, I did listen to that album an awful lot. Even though I hadn’t listened to it before this week in at least a quarter century I could still sing along to every song. I know every word, every phrasing. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true.

Trying to listen to it afresh, and not nostalgically, I have to say in all honesty it is not a good album. It has a ton of great moments – or moments that could be great – but almost every little bit is destroyed by the production.

Let’s start at the end, which is the best part. The best song on the album is “Dark Eyes”, the final track. This is just Dylan singing, playing guitar and a nice little bit of harmonica at the opening. It’s a formula that had worked for two decades at this point, and it works here all over again. Simple. This song has some truly beautiful lyrics: “They tell me revenge is sweet / From where they stand I’m sure it is / But I feel nothing for that game / Where beauty goes unrecognized / All I feel is heat and flame / And all I see are dark eyes”. Excellent. It’s beautifully written and well-sung. Years from now Dylan and Patti Smith will perform this as a duet in concert and it will be incredible. Why couldn’t the whole album be this way?

Neither of the two singles, “Tight Connection to My Heart” and “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky” are worth much of anything. Both are good songs lost in the production. That same thing can be said about most of the tracks here as well. “Seeing The Real You At Last” is a bitter Dylan blow-off with horns and sax slathered all over it. Lyrically, there are gems, including the opening line: “I though that the rain would cool things down, but it looks like it won’t”. That line always makes me think: “This is going to be good”, but it never is.

“Never Gonna Be the Same Again” suffers from both synthesizer and back-up singers. Could’ve been a good love song, but I can barely listen to this one – it is way too far over the top. “Trust Yourself”, one of three songs on the album featuring the return of Sly and Robbie as the rhythm section, is also too much. “Emotionally Yours” is pretty much just a bad song – it’s the type of thing Rod Stewart was doing around this time. The worst song on the album is ‘Something’s Burning, Baby”, with its marching band drums and synthesizer. That one probably can’t be redeemed at all (it is the only song from the album to have never been performed live, so maybe I’m not the only one who thinks this….)

There are also two curious songs on the album. The first is “Clean Cut Kid”, maybe the first pop song about Vietnam War PTSD. This is another where I hate the production, which is clanging and jarring, but the lyrics are actually quite funny. Dylan doesn’t often engage with straight up satire, but this song has a lot of it. Every time I hear this I think I hate it, but by about the midway point (“He was on the baseball team, he was in the marching band / When he was ten years old he had a watermelon stand”) I think I should give it another chance. Then the “whoop whoops” start up from the back-up singers and I have to wonder if Dylan has lost his mind. This is one that I wish were better than it is.

The other interesting song is “I’ll Remember You”. Along with “Dark Eyes”, this is the lone song that isn’t overproduced on the album – just Dylan on piano, plus an understated guitar, bass, drums backing band and a single backing singer (Madelyn Quebec). What surprises me about this song is that it didn’t get released as a single, since it seems like precisely the type of song that gets regularly picked up for big emotional moments. It’s “The Wind Beneath My Wings” but far less cloying. It’s a more contemporary “Forever Young”. It’s the song that you hope gets played at your funeral and everyone starts crying. It really seems like it should be played over the end credits of everyone’s college years:

There’s some people that
You don’t forget
Even though you’ve only seen ’m one time or two
When the roses fade
And I’m in the shade
I’ll remember you

It’s good for what it is, and I’m surprised that it never got picked up in that context and covered.

So, that’s Empire Burlesque. It’s a pretty forgettable album, with a lot of songs that could have been much better than they are here.

I can’t say, however, that it never did anything for me in high school. In point of fact, one of my great high school triumphs is owed to this album: As I may have mentioned at least once this year, all of the English teachers at my high school were Dylan fans. The biggest fan amongst them taught me grade eleven English. He would talk about Dylan frequently. At least once a week. It was a running joke. One day, for reasons that I can not ascertain, he went off on the class. The pretext was an article in that day’s paper about “my generation” and the fact that they didn’t have heroes. He asked us for some examples of heroes and no one offered much up (to be fair, it was a terrible, terrible group of students, they never gave him much to work with – the class had a lot of students who weren’t bound for college). He called us self-interested. So I raised my hand and offered a quote. He told me to go ahead, and turning to the back of my Bob Dylan Collected Lyrics (which, honestly, I had with me…), I said “To quote the great Bob Dylan:

Trust yourself
Trust yourself to do the things that only you know best
Trust yourself
Trust yourself to do what’s right and not be second-guessed
Don’t trust me to show you beauty
When beauty may only turn to rust
If you need somebody you can trust, trust yourself

Mic drop. I think that the class actually whooped. For the rest of the week I was stopped in the hall by people I didn’t even know to ask if it was true that I’d shut down Mr. X with a Dylan quote. Indeed it was. It was probably the smuggest I’ve ever felt in my entire life.

That’s a true story, by the way.

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