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Music Review: Bob Dylan – Empire Burlesque

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Empire Burlesque may not have been Bob Dylan’s first album released in the 1980s but it was his first 80’s album.

He self produced this release without any help and at this point in his career he was usually better off with a strong outside producer at the helm. Many people would say that modern recording techniques were beyond his complete technical understanding and that would seem to be the case here. On the other hand, the writing and singing would be fine and while the overall product would not be among his very best works, it would certainly be a representative album.

I think the biggest drawback was that Dylan tried to make his songs conform to the 1980s. In some ways, this prevented him from being his unique self. The most obvious example of this is the track, “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky.” It is presented as a dance or even disco song and would fit right in with much of what was being produced at the time. The same song would later appear on the Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991 but would be transformed featuring horns, keyboards and a scintillating guitar solo by Steve Van Zandt. This superior track clearly shows how aware Dylan was in 1985 of the direction of pop music.

“Tight Connect To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)” has a lush, pop sound. The saving grace is the lyrics which are obscure in places but possibly show his dissatisfaction with Christianity. “Trust Yourself” follows the same pattern of polished production with a good gritty vocal. “Something’s Burning Baby” contains some great apocalyptic imagery but too much of a synthesizer sound.

The production is a little better on “Clean Cut Kid,” an anti-Vietnam song from a veteran’s viewpoint and “I’ll Remember You” which is a sweet love song that Dylan still performs in concert.

After presenting nine songs the album ends with “Dark Eyes.” This is just acoustic Dylan with guitar and harmonica. It shows a simple Dylan at his best.

I consider Empire Burlesque both a difficult and a rewarding listen. I try to concentrate on the lyrics and messages rather than the overbearing production. There are some gems to to found here but you have to dig a little deeper than usual.


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About David Bowling

  • Empire Burlesque was certainly “with the times” & for sure one of the oddest sounding Dylan albums.

  • I would have to agree with Mr. Cramsey. Empire Burlesque is light years better than Knocked Out Loaded, but I wouldn’t damn Empire with such faint praise. Comparing Dylan to Dylan isn’t fair.

  • kevin cramsey

    Mr. Bowling is pretty much on the mark here in his review. Aside form the ’80s production, I think the album in general suffers from weak songwriting — at least by Dylan standards. While I like the two big ballads, “I’ll Remember You” and “Emotionally Yours,” well enough, they are a little on the perfunctory side, and “Never Gonna Be The Same Again” even more so — it could be written or performed by just about anybody. “Clean Cut Kid” is standard rock/blues with mostly cliche lyrics (though I do like the line about eating “Burger Kings” and the one about meeting “Peter O’Toole” and driving a rolls royce into a swimming pool). “Tight Connection” is a really wonderful Dylan pop tune, though the earlier version of the song, “Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart,” an Infidels out-take, has held up better through the years.

    As for the person who commented that “Knocked Out Loaded” is better than “Empire,” I’d say they need a new pair of ears. That album is God-awful. In hindight, I’m not even sure “Brownsville Girl” is any good. Overblown production, annoying backing vocals, a mistake or two in the lyrics that Dylan didn’t even bother to re-do . . . a real mess.

  • good review. hate to be a pedant though, but Arthur Baker produced this record not Dylan.

  • Dude Skoodle

    I think Knocked Out Loaded is better.
    Something is Burning is a good song.
    I think U are right that he was conforming too much to 80s floss. Well he has certainly outlived those conformist lightweights of the time. You see Burlesque has nothing as great as Brownsville Girl and lacks the downhome grit of the blues on Knocked out Loaded but as usual there are about 4 tracks that are really good. This is a pattern in Dylan along with the throwaway first tracks (not always)eg Wiggle Wiggle, Gotta serve Someone (relatively trite) and Tight Connection very careless and mediocre… but coz its Bob I like it anyway

    But as usual the 3 or 4 good tracks are there. The new bootleg looks very promising and shows his incredible depth… but really he doesn’t really care what I, you or anyone else thinks.
    He is a pitbull without Botox ole Bob is.