Empire Burlesque (1985)
The mid-80s are undoubtedly the nadir of Dylan’s career, and that nadir starts with this album. Some of the songs here are actually stronger than they are given credit for. “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky” isn’t that bad, and “Something’s Burning, Baby” and “Never Gonna Be the Same Again” are alright. “I’ll Remember You” is pleasant enough. “Tight Connection To My Heart” could have been good had it not been butchered in the revisions between it and “Someone’s Got Ahold of My Heart,” the original, superior version recorded for Infidels. The album was recorded with several different bands, but mostly included members of the Heartbreakers, Tom Petty’s backup band who would back Dylan on tour for much of the next two years, and the musicians from Infidels. Dylan produced basic tracks that worked pretty well, but he wanted a bit hit. He wasn’t satisfied with Infidels sales and wanted a full return to the spotlight. To achieve this he hired New Order’s producer Arthur Baker to give him an MTV-ready sound and even recorded three music videos; the one for “Tight Connection To My Heart” is hilariously bad. The mid-80s poppiness dated the music horribly, though, overlaying the basic tracks with synthesized horns, preprogrammed drum beats and unnecessary whoops from the background singers. This album also began to show something of a bout of writer’s block – even though Dylan wrote all of the songs, dozens of lines from classic movies from the 40s and 50s showed up in them.
Best song: Clean Cut Kid – Robert Christgau loved this song, and until recently I never could see why. Lyrically, it’s in the top two songs on the album, and it drives pretty hard too. This is Dylan’s only song to directly address Vietnam. Typically, Dylan chose to stay out of temporal issues, knowing that once you wrote a song tied to a specific moment, its themes would die with that moment. There are so many specifics in here, though, that it seems as though the “Clean Cut Kid” has to be some kind of real person.
Worst song: Emotionally Yours – There was a video for this and it later became something of a hit single for 70s funk band the O’Jays. It is just kind of flat in the emotional register when it wants so badly to be deep and affecting.
Best outtake: When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky – Dylan recorded a take of this song with the E-Street Band which would eventually show up on Bootleg Series 1-3, but went with an inferior take instead.
Notable live version: In the late 90s, Patti Smith joined Dylan onstage and suggest a duet on “Dark Eyes,” the haunting acoustic closer which is quite arguably the best thing on this album.
Rhymes: wood/understood (“I’ll Remember You”); pills/spill; O’Toole/pool; choir/wire (2-4 from “Clean Cut Kid”); river/deliver (“When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky”)
Images: “a guy who’s wearin’ a powder blue wig” (“Tight Connection To My Heart”); “you could ride like Annie Oakley, you could shoot like Belle Starr” (“Seeing the Real You At Last”); “a napalm help spa” (“Clean Cut Kid”); “the fireplace where my letters are burning;” that icy wind that’s howling in your eye” (“When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky”); “the earth is strung with lover’s pearls;” “the falling gods of speed and steal”
Axioms: “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble” (“Seeing the Real You At Last”); “He bought the American Dream, but it put him in debt” (“Clean Cut Kid”); “beauty may only turn to rust” (“Trust Yourself”); “I’ll know you better when my memory is not so short” (“When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky”); “I live in another world where life and death are memorized” (“Dark Eyes”)