When Bob Dylan Entered a Confusing Period With ‘Empire Burlesque’
Recorded in a scattershot manner between July 1984 and March 1985, Bob Dylan's Empire Burlesque sounds like it. There's a dizzying array of styles and sounds, of sidemen and remixes, of too few successes and too many missteps. As such, this self-produced project – released on June 10, 1985 – never quite finds its footing, despite those better moments.
Dylan invites members of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers but dots the album with dated-sounding keyboards. He plucks cultural references, seemingly, out of thin air – referencing old Hollywood productions like Shane on "Seeing the Real You at Last" and also the Star Trek episode "Squire of Gothos" on the single "Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)." He reaches back for two unused songs from 1983's Infidels, including "Tight Connection" and the rough and randy "Clean-Cut Kid," but then overthinks things by discarding an instant-classic take on "When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky," which was originally recorded with members of the E Street Band (the released version instead features a dance-influenced mix that critics referred to as "Disco Dylan"). "Something's Burning, Baby" is colored with synths, while "Dark Eyes" is recorded solely on guitar and harmonica.
You could blame all of this on the on-again, off-again nature of the sessions. Given enough time, even a genius like Bob Dylan can begin to second guess himself. Or you could point to the production miscues of the era, as Dylan joined many other classic-rock artists who struggled to update their bedrock sound – at least with any credibility. The truth is though, Dylan was in the middle of a rangy public reemergence, and he seemed to enjoy mixing it up -- in the studio and out in the world.
He sat in with reggae stars Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare before Empire Burlesque was released, then took part in Live Aid soon after with Ron Wood and Keith Richards. His comments onstage that day led to the founding of Farm Aid with Willie Nelson; at that fest, Dylan played three tracks from his new album, accompanied again by the Heartbreakers. And he'd already participated in the all-star "We Are the World" sessions earlier in the year.
Meanwhile, Empire Burlesque saw the return of former Dylan sideman Al Kooper, additional turns by Sly and Robbie, sessions with Anton Fig and Jim Keltner and extra guitar work by Wood and Mick Taylor. Dylan himself was all over the place. Why would his creative output be any different?
Ultimately, Empire Burlesque could have been seen, at least in theory, as an appeal to Dylan's core fan base, even as his new-found interest in synthesizers and – gasp! – MTV exposure opened the door for discovery by another generation. Videos were made for "Tight Connection to My Heart," "When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky" and "Emotionally Yours," continuing a trend that started with Dylan's first-ever video for "Sweetheart Like You" from Infidels.
But that's not the way it unfolded. Empire Burlesque crept into the Top 40, but only to No. 33 – well behind the No. 20 finish enjoyed by the gold-selling Infidels and on par with projects from his earlier, much-lower-profile Christian-rock era such as 1980's Saved. Songs like "Something's Burning, Baby," with its dim apocalyptic vision, were perhaps too serious for MTV's demo. At the same time, however, that song's sleekly modern musical finish likely rang hollow for Dylan's older fans.
Unfortunately, 1986's follow-up, Knocked Out Loaded, was even more disjointed and poorly received. It would take a few more years, and the arrival 1989's Oh Mercy, before Dylan found the creative footing to match his reemerging public persona. He began that journey by finally settling in with Petty and the Heartbreakers for successful tours in 1986-87.
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