"Somehow, I figured I could always get away with just playing the songs live in the studio and leaving. It got to the point where I felt people expected that from me. But I decided (on Infidels) to take my time like other people do" Bob Dylan 1983
Released in November 1983, "Infidels" proved to be something of a return to form for Bob Dylan. After his well documented foray into Christianity, this ironically titled album has more than stood the test of time. Co-produced by Dylan himself and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits (although Knopfler later disowned it), and with the inspired use of the brilliantly understated rhythm section of Sly and Robbie, this is arguably his best album of the eighties and certainly his most commercially successful (excluding Travelling Wilburys), although its' only real competition is 1989's "Oh Mercy". The recording process however was not without its problems, due in no small part to Dylan's cavalier approach, odd when you consider that he had spent a year on writing the songs. "It was all done live. I learned that from doing "Slow Train Coming" You try to get things run down before the thing is attempted, because after two or three times Bob would have moved on to something else" said Knopfler, and Dire Straits colleague, keyboardist Alan Clark was no less bemused "If you weren't sitting there...he just started, y'know. It was amazing. And that's the way the album went" he said after describing Dylan's reluctance to do more than one take of any song. There was also much re-writing in the studio, and the sessions so frustrated Knopfler that at one stage he walked out in disgust. He did return to finish the sessions, but had more reason to be peeved when he left to resume a European tour with Dire Straits and Dylan remixed and sequenced the album in his absence.
The album kicks off with "Jokerman" and illustrates Dylan's uncanny ability to marry biblical imagery with everyday language, something that has always been one of his strongest tools. Sly Dunbar for one was amazed at how easily the track came "He look at us and say, That's the take...we couldn't believe how smooth it went" he said, but Dylan would record a new vocal track before he was satisfied with it. The writing here is strong, and from the opening lines we are in some of Dylan's favourite territory "Standing on the water casting your bread/While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing" the images are stark and vivid, from "You were born with a snake in both of your fists" to the wonderfully evocative "In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed/Michelangelo indeed could have carved out your features," and although the bulk of the song is addressed to someone in the third person, Dylan may well be speaking to or about himself. Time called "Jokerman" "...part salvation hunter, part satanic twister" and after the failure of the promotional video of "Sweetheart Like You" it was decided to try with this. Co-directors Larry Sloman and George Lois tried matching up the lyrics of the song to classic paintings, intercut with close-ups of Dylan miming, but the point was lost on him and he was less than co-operative and disliked the finished product, even though it came in for much praise.
The video for "Sweetheart Like You" directed by Mark Robinson, was not so successful. Seemingly devoid of ideas, it has Dylan performing the song to an ageing (and remarkably unattractive) waitress in a club at closing time. Not one of the album's strongest tracks, it has a certain charm and the title is a twist on the horrible old clichè, a theme that is continued with the devastatingly original "By the way that's a cute hat/And a smile so hard to resist/But what's a sweetheart like you doin' in a dump like this?" Several takes and some re-writes were required for this song and it's a pity that it didn't lose the lines "...a woman like you should be at home/That's where you belong" when Dylan decided to overdub the vocal. That aside, the song features some typically outstanding work in the rhythm section and an excellent Knopfler guitar solo at the end.
The third track on the album, "Neighborhood Bully," is in some ways a return to the so-called protest days. Delivered with a pulsating rock beat, this thinly disguised defence of Israel and Zionism upset some people at the time. There is some terrific writing on this song, with lines like "...always on trial for just being born" and "...there's a noose at his neck and a gun at his back/And a licence to kill him given out to every maniac," there was no doubting where Dylan's loyalties lay. The problem is of course that he takes it too far and the song becomes a diatribe with some of the opinions being decidedly odd "He took the crumbs of the world and he turned it into wealth/He took sickness and disease and he turned it into health." This was the one that Dylan wanted to make a video of, and his lack of support may partly explain his scant enthusiasm for the other two.
Even though both Dylan and Knopfler commented on the fact that the album was done live, "License to Kill" was the only track to be recorded in one take. It is well written and well performed, but has little originality to recommend it, this is ground that has been well covered in the past. However, there are some gems in this tale of man who has "...invented his doom" and "...worships at an altar of a stagnant pool." This song paints a disturbing aural picture, a picture of mankind that is "...hell bent for destruction/afraid and confused," unwilling or unable to stop the rot.
Themes of intrigue and duplicity abound in "Man of Peace," one of the best written songs on the album. From the evocative opening "Look out your window baby, there's a band you'd like to catch/The band is playing Dixie, a man got his hand outstretched," Dylan piles image upon image and the pace is unflagging. It is a source of constant amazement that he is able to get through the song without tripping over the words. His descriptions of evil cloaked in goodness are quite astonishing "He got sweet gift of gab, he got harmonious tongue/He knows every song of love that ever has been sung" and "He's a great humanitarian, a great philanthropist/He knows just where to touch you, honey, and how you like to be kissed," and there is a wonderfully sinister feel to "Well, the howling wolf will howl tonight, the king snake will crawl/Trees that've stood for a thousand years suddenly will fall." Some of Dylan's best writing can be found in this song which deals with one of his most abiding themes.
The same could be said of "Union Sundown", although it is the slightly inferior of the two songs (and I for one could do without the echo). The subject of corporate greed has its roots in 1964's "North Country Blues", but here subtlety is abandoned and a sledgehammer is used to drive the point home. The idea that "It don't count 'less it sells" is very much at the heart of this piece. The weakness of the song is that Dylan uses the list structure that he often falls back on to make a point, and in an earlier version there was a verse about a man in the White House who "...will be allowed to remain there until he dies" which was (probably wisely) omitted.
"I And I" is for me the high point of the album. From the opening strains of Knopfler's guitar and Sly Dunbar's mesmeric drumming, this song just pulls you in. Leonard Cohen tells of a conversation with Dylan in a Paris cafe where Dylan professed admiration for Cohen's song "Hallelujah" and asked him how long it took to write. "Oh, the best part of two years" said Cohen, and then asked Dylan how long "I And I" had taken, to which Dylan replied "Oh, about fifteen minutes." Cohen nearly fell off his chair. The veracity of the story may be in doubt, but it remains one of Dylan's best songs from this period.
The first stanza with its' "...righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlight streams" sets the scene for this atmospheric journey, and the vocal is magnificent. The chameleon or gemini in Dylan's psyche is focussed on in this brilliant piece of work. He again uses the bible for some of his finest images "Took a stranger to teach me to look into justice's beautiful face/And to see an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" "I is Another" he said, quoting Arthur Rimbaud, one of his favourite sources of inspiration, and the song's final couplet "Someone else is speakin' with my mouth, but I'm listening only to my heart/I made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot" lingers long in the memory.
The album closes with "Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight" and although it's not a bad song, it's not one for sustained listening. This was another that was overdubbed after the album was to all intents and purposes finished, and the vocal does not match up to the sterling work done by Sly and Robbie. Lyrically this is a difficult song to pin down, with Dylan's ideas all over the place, he ponders on past mistakes "Maybe I'd have done some good in the world/'Stead of burning every bridge I crossed" and apologises for his poor communication skills, "I ain't too good at conversation, girl/So you might not know exactly how I feel" and even throws in a reference to Clark Gable for those who like to count the movie/movie star references in his work.
On balance "Infidels" is a good album that could have been a great one, but Dylan, whose strange penchant for omitting superior tracks in favour of inferior ones, outdid himself here. Larry Sloman was aghast when he heard the completed album and it did not include "Blind Willie McTell" "How can you not put one of the greatest songs you ever wrote on the album?" he asked Dylan, who merely said that he felt he had not recorded it right (after several tries). Several other potential classics did not make the cut, "Someone's Got A Hold Of My Heart" would surface as "Tight Connection To My Heart" on Dylan's next studio album, "Foot Of Pride" and "Lord Protect My Child" along with "Blind Willie McTell" would thankfully see the light of day in the 1991 release of "Bootlegs vols. 1-3." Mark Knopfler was, perhaps justifiably, not pleased with the finished product, particularly after having spent so much time on it
"Infidels would have been a better record if I had mixed the thing, but I had to go on tour in Germany...Some of it is like listening to roughs. Maybe Bob thought I'd rushed things because I was in a hurry to leave, but I offered to finish it after our tour. Instead, he got the engineer to do the final mix." Dylan defended his decision to remix "I wanted to fill it up more. I've never wanted to do that with any other record. Did you ever listen to an Eagles record? Their songs are good, but every note is predictable...I started to sense some of that on Infidels and I didn't like it, so we decided to redo some of the vocals." "Infidels" was well received in the States, where it reached #20 in the album charts. The New York Times said its "...incendiary political rants, quasi-Biblical tirades and surreal love songs capture the apocalyptic mood of the moment with shuddering immediacy," but the European reception was cooler, writing in New Musical Express, Graham Lock said that Dylan was "...culturally a spent force who may still toss off a good song now and then" and was a "...confused man trying to rekindle old fires." As to the videos from the album, one fared well, one not so. Dylan himself finally put his opinion of the medium in perspective in 1985 when he said with just the slightest touch of sour grapes that videos were all fake "Anybody can make a video; all you need is a camera. I don't care about being a video star or a movie star." "Infidels" was the album that convinced everybody that Dylan's so called Christian period was behind him. Unfortunately, with the exception of the over produced "Empire Burlesque" in 1985, the eighties would prove to be a thin decade for him until the release of 1989's "Oh Mercy."