"About two years ago I decided to get serious about it and just record...What I do now is just record all the time. Sometimes something comes out and other times I get a lot of stuff that I keep. I recorded [Empire Burlesque] for a long time. I just put down the songs that I felt as I wanted to put them down. Then I'd listen and decide if I liked them. And if I didn't like them I'd either re-record them or change something about them." Bob Dylan 1985.
"Empire Burlesque" was released in June 1985 after a period of recording sessions that covered nine months. It was intended as a follow-up to 1983's "Infidels," but was seen as something of a disappointment when compared to that album. This was partly due to Dylan's uncertainty of which songs to use and even which versions of those songs. Arthur Baker's production did not help, as his heavy handed style did not suit the album that Dylan was apparently trying to produce. Consequently "Empire Burlesque" comes across as little more than a pop record with a couple of above average songs, and it only reached number 33 in the charts. In August, Dylan belatedly made two videos ("Tight Connection To My Heart" and "When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky") but neither was particularly ground breaking and the album remains one of his least successful.
"Tight Connection To My Heart" is a song that Dylan had been working on for some time, he had tried it out under the working title of "Someone's Got A Hold Of My Heart" during the "Infidels" sessions in 1983, but was not happy with the results. One of the takes (from April 25th 1983) can be heard on the "Bootlegs Vols 1-3" album, and some people feel that this is a superior version. The song as it appears on "Empire Burlesque" sets something of a trend with Dylan freely borrowing quotes from various movies. Indeed, the opening lines "Well I had to move fast/And I couldn't with you around my neck" paraphrase some of Humphrey Bogart's dialogue from 1951's "Sirocco" as does the later "But I can't figure out whether I'm too good for you/Or your too good for me," and even the album title has a movie feel about it. And while not wishing to labour the point, the lines "I'll go along with this charade/Until I can think my way out" are a straight crib from an early episode of Star Trek ("Squire of Gothos"). That aside, "Tight Connection To My Heart" remains one of the better tracks on the album, even if it does suffer from the almost universal problem of over production. Sadly the same cannot be said of the video that was made partly to promote the song, and partly to promote the album. Dylan spent two days in Tokyo filming with Paul Schrader, the director who had just finished filming his epic "Mishima," and the kindest thing that can be said about the result is that of the two videos that were made for "Empire Burlesque" this is the better. Schrader described it as "...a little piece of eye candy I shot in Tokyo" and Dylan was equally dismissive of it, "I thought I might be able to make a video with the man who made the movies and pull it off, but I was wrong." he said in 1986. Strangely, for somebody with such an obvious fascination with movies and the movie making process, virtually all of Dylan's ventures into this art form have been pretty unsuccessful.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, keyboards/ Mick Taylor: Guitar/ Ted Perlman: Guitar/ Sly Dunbar: Drums/ Robbie Shakespeare: Bass/ Richard Sher: Synthesizer/ Carol Dennis, Queen Esther Marrow, Peggi Blu: Backing Vocals.
Robert Shelton described "Seeing The Real You at Last" as a "...song of deep betrayal" and although it contains some reasonable lyrics and images, most are not original. Again, Dylan falls back on movie dialogue (too many to mention) and clichés, but the song does manage to maintain a certain charm, not least of which is a great vocal track. "Well, I sailed through the storm/Strapped to the mast" he sings, making a rare foray into the world of Greek mythology, and there is a unique weariness and inevitability in the way he delivers the chorus line. He has accepted being let-down and betrayed and is ready for whatever his betrayer is going to throw at him "Whatever your gonna do/Please do it fast/I'm still trying to get used to/Seeing the real you at last" he says with jaded resignation. "Seeing The Real You At Last" unfortunately falls into the trap of the majority of songs on this album in that Dylan tries (mostly unsuccessfully) to disguise weak or hackneyed writing with too much production, and it has to be said that even in the hands of such a masterful lyricist this song falls short of expectations.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Guitar/ Mike Campbell: Guitar/ Benmont Tench: Keyboards/ Don Heffington: Drums/ Bob Glaub: Bass/ Bashiri Johnson: Percussion/ Chops: Horns/ David Watson: Sax Solo.
"I'll Remember You" which is in some ways an answer to "Seeing The Real You At Last" is a song that also suffers from this over production. The irritating echo on the vocals ruins a song that would surely have benefited from a more understated approach. Instead, with clumsy and unconvincing lines like "You to me were true/You to me were the best" and "There's some people that/You don't forget/Even though you've only seen 'em/One time or two" it is reduced to nothing more than a second rate pop song. Dylan does try bravely to elevate the song above this with "Didn't I sleep, didn't I weep beside you/With the rain blowing in your hair?" but all this does is remind us of how good he is when he isn't trying quite so hard. One would think that "I'll Remember You" is not a song that Dylan would want to be remembered by, and yet when asked what his favourite song on the album was he quoted this one saying "...I still feel exactly the same way as I did when I wrote it, I figure I said what I had to say and I said it in a way that was very concise and very brief and then it was over..."
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Piano/ Madelyn Quebec: Vocals/ Mike Campbell: Guitar/ Howie Epstein: Bass/ Jim Keltner: Drums.
"Clean Cut Kid" is the only track on the album to survive from the July 1984 sessions at New York's Delta studios, where Dylan had been joined by sometime partner in crime Rolling Stone Ron Wood. It is a song that had been considered for "Infidels," Dylan's previous studio album, but had not made the final cut - there is a good argument for a similar fate here. This is not an original idea and the result is a very poor song. The strange thing is that this is territory that one would expect Dylan to be perfectly at home in, but it is a theme that he has barely touched in his long career. War in general (and Vietnam in particular) should have provided Dylan with plenty of fodder for his fertile mind, but instead we get "He was a clean-cut kid/But they made a killer out of him/That's what they did." We also find ourselves back in the realms of moviedom with references to "The Deer Hunter"- "The only game he could play was Russian roulette" and Hollywood excess "He went to Hollywood to see Peter O'Toole/He stole a Rolls Royce and drove it in a swimming pool." It is truly sad that a song that Dylan would once have sunk his teeth into and given us a classic is reduced to such clumsy triteness as "He went to church on Sunday, he was a boy scout/For his friends he would turn his pockets inside out." Falling back on a song that had been considered inferior for a previous album was not a good idea.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Guitar/ Ron Wood: Guitar/ Benmont Tench: Piano/ John Paris: Bass/ Anton Fig: Drums/ Carol Dennis, Queen Esther Marrow, Peggi Blu: Backing Vocals.
If any song were to prove the point that "Empire Burlesque" is little more than a collection of mediocre pop songs, then it is surely "Never Gonna Be The Same Again." It is unfortunate that Dylan sets such high standards in songwriting because we expect him to maintain them, when perhaps we should just accept songs like this for what they are. "Sorry if I hurt you, baby/Sorry if I did/Sorry if I touched the place/Where your secrets are hid" he sings, but like a lot of the lyrics on this album, he fails to convince. One of the best couplets in this short song is "Don't worry, baby, I don't mind leaving/I'd just like it to be my idea" is again not original (it's from the 1953 movie "Shane") and doesn't fit the overall theme of the song, suggesting that Dylan was writing to order and just throwing in anything that sounded right. The usually reliable Paul Williams said of this song that Dylan achieved what he was reaching for; pity then that he didn't set his sights higher.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Keyboards/ Carol Dennis: Vocals/ Syd McGuinness: Guitar/ Alan Clark, Richard Scher: Synthesizers/ Robbie Shakespeare: Bass/ Sly Dunbar: Drums/ Queen Esther Marrow, Peggi Blu, Debra Byrd: Backing Vocals.
On "Trust Yourself" Dylan commits what is to me the worst crime of all - he becomes boring. This song with its so called message would not be out of place on 1981's "Shot Of Love" "Don't trust me to show you beauty/When beauty may only turn to rust" and "Don't trust me to show you the truth/When the truth may only be ashes and dust" show an artist struggling for inspiration. Half formed ideas and unconvincing platitudes see Dylan reverting to such pseudo spiritual lines as "Don't put your hope in ungodly man/Or be a slave to what somebody else believes" that he should have left behind years ago. The song also throws up what is probably the worst line on the entire album "And look not for answers where no answers can be found." It was for songs like this dull and repetitive number that the word filler was invented.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Guitar/ Madelyn Quebec: Vocals/ Mike Campbell: Guitar/ Benmont Tench: Keyboards/ Robbie Shakespeare: Bass/ Jim Keltner: Drums/ Bashiri Johnson: Percussion/ Queen Esther Marrow, Debra Byrd, Carol Dennis: Backing Vocals.
"Emotionally Yours," recorded at the same session, thankfully doesn't fall into the same trap. Though not a classic, it has potential that was recognised by soul group the O'Jays who recorded two versions of it and named their 1990 album after it. Michael Gray makes no bones about the fact that he hates this song (he calls it "Bullshit and sludge") but I find a certain innocence and honesty about it. It is the best of the minor songs on the album and shouldn't be taken at anything more than face value. The sentiments behind "...lock me in the shadows of your heart" and "...my arms are open wide" are quite open, and there is a certain disarming wit about "I know this dream is crazy/But it's the only one I've got" and it's original (I think). Dylan has proved time and again to be adept at writing a simple love song and here he does it again.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Piano/ Mike Campbell: Guitar/ Jim Keltner: Drums/ Howie Epstein: Bass/ Benmont Tench: Organ/ Richard Scher: Synth Horns.
There can be no doubt about the high point of the album. "When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky" is classic Dylan, but this may not be the best recording of it. The Power Station sessions had proved to be productive, and Dylan recorded an earlier version there with two veterans of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band (Roy Bittan on keyboards and "Miami" Steve van Zandt on guitar) but decided to re-record it a month later and give it the full "Empire Burlesque" treatment. To many people the earlier version (available on "Bootlegs Vols 1-3") is superior, but my personal feeling is that we should be grateful that any version of this remarkable song is on this album. "Look out across the fields, see me returning" sings Dylan recalling the returning lover from "Desire's" "Isis" and the smoke image is extended over two lines "Smoke is in your eye.../From the fireplace where my letters to you are burning." The metaphoric use of "walls" in the line "I can see through your walls and I know your hurting" is masterful as is the wonderful simile "Sorrow covers you up like a cape," and nobody can match Dylan for such aural imagery as "I can hear your trembling heart beat like a river" or "In your teardrops , I can see my own reflection." Sadly, the rewrite saw the loss of one of the best lines from the original "I gave to you my heart like buried treasure/But suffering seems to fit you like a glove" but we are still left with a fine song, and one of the best from Dylan's mid eighties period. The only downside to all of this of course is the ludicrous video that was made to promote it. Again Dylan's apparent lack of understanding of the movie making process let him down, and this coupled with little or no communication between executive producer Dave Stewart and producers Markus Innocenti and Eddie Arno resulted in a piece of "product" best forgotten.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Guitar/ Madelyn Quebec: Vocals/ Sly Dunbar: Drums/ Robbie Shakespeare: Bass/ Al Kooper: Rhythm Guitar/ Stuart Johnson: Electric Guitar/ Bashiri Johnson: Percussion/ Richard Scher: Synthesizer/ Urban Bright Horns: Horns.
Guitarist Ira Ingber called "Something's Burning, Baby" a "very weird song" and said that Madelyn Quebec didn't know the lyrics when she and Dylan recorded it. This may well be the case judging by the difficulty she appears to have with the vocal. In the song Dylan seems to be looking for assurance that the relationship is ongoing "Are you still my friend, baby, show me a sign/Is the love in your heart for me turning blind?" but it certainly contains some odd lyrics "You can't roll away the stone if your hands are tied" and "I've had the Mexico City blues since the last hairpin curve" to name just two. Strange that a song that starts with such a distinct theme should have lyrics that are all over the place, we even get a reference to the "...bloodhounds of London" in this song that is probably the strangest on the album. The other thing that sets it apart is that other than the title being repeated at the beginning of the fourth and final verses, it does not have a chorus line or a hook, unlike every other song here. "Something's Burning, Baby" closes what may be seen as the body of the album, and the final song has something of an added on feeling to it.
Bob Dylan, Madelyn Quebec: Vocals/ Ira Ingber: Guitar/ Vince Melamed: Synthesizer/ Don Heffington: Drums/ Robbie Shakespeare: Bass/ Richard Scher: Synthesizer.
Dylan himself admitted that he wrote "Dark Eyes" to finish off the album "...I needed a tenth (song). I finally figured out that the tenth song needed to be acoustic, so I just wrote it. I wrote it because none of the other songs fit that spot, that certain space" he said in 1985. Lyrically it is a good song (compared with the bulk of "Empire Burlesque") but the droning and monotonous delivery tend to detract from the lyrics. Apart from a couple of live performances with Patti Smith in the mid nineties, Dylan made only one attempt to perform this song live in concert (Sydney February 1986) but aborted it when he was unable to maintain the lugubrious melody. It's hard to know exactly who Dylan is targeting here, these may be just random thoughts, but "...the midnight moon is on the riverside" and "A cock is crowing far away and another soldier's deep in prayer" do have a vague biblical echo of Christ's betrayal. The penultimate line "Oh, time is short and days are sweet and passion rules the arrow that flies" is reminiscent of 1964's "Restless Farewell" and I suppose it is safe to assume that the "...million faces at my feet" are his audiences. Not an altogether satisfactory song, but one that deserves a little time, if you can get past the irritating melody.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Guitar, Harmonica.
"Empire Burlesque" does have a few gems, but in general it is a pretty mediocre album, and it has to be said that the sound, so distinctive of the eighties does not suit Dylan's voice or lyrics. It was however well received on release, Jay Cocks reviewing it in "Time" said it was "...full of turmoil and anger and mystery, an oblique diary...It is also a record of survival and a tentative kind of triumph." but few of the songs would have any staying power in terms of live performance. Many people picked up on the number of cinematic images that the album contained and Dylan defended this (as much as he has ever defended anything) by telling Bill Flanagan, author of "Written In My Soul" "A lot of times you'll just hear things and you'll know that these are the things you want to put in your song. Whether you say them or not. They don't have to be your particular thoughts. They just sound good, and somebody thinks them. Half my stuff falls along those lines...I didn't originate those kind of thoughts. I've felt them, but I didn't originate them. They're out there so I just use them...It's more or less remembering things and taking it down" This of course was particularly true of the one major song that was omitted, the brilliant "Brownsville Girl" which was the saving grace of Dylan's next studio album "Knocked Out Loaded." As for Arthur Baker, he said "Some of the songs sort of stand up and some of them don't. Some of it I would have done differently. But they were good songs. Songs like "Emotionally Yours" "I'll Remember You" and "When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky" - all those were covered by other artists." He had his fifteen minutes of fame with Bob Dylan, and although there was talk of him producing Dylan's next album, thankfully it did not happen.