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.