Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Empire Burlesque: Adrift in the 80s

Released June 10, 1985
Empire Burlesque somehow found its way into Walter Isaacson's biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs. A longtime Dylan fan, Jobs dismissed the album's sound as "disco" and lamented Dylan's long decline since Blood on the Tracks. Granted, Jobs was in the middle of losing battle to stay in control of Apple and in a grim mood.  I suspect many Dylan fans felt the same way. It was the middle of the 80s and music just didn't sound the same anymore.

Glancing at the top albums of 1985, one is struck by the dominance of British bands like The Smiths, The Cure, New Order, and Tears for Fears.  All critical darlings getting airplay on MTV. American rock looked like it was losing its way with a few exceptions.  REM's Fables of the Reconstruction offered a revised Americana, while The Replacements inspired a new "lost" generation with their definitive Tim. A new Dylan album no longer seemed special.

Empire Burlesque rests on an uneasy balance between's Dylan's unique lyrical style and Arthur Baker's synthesizer heavy production (which inevitably dates the album's sound).

But buried beneath the mechanical beats are some great songs. For example go read the lyrics to "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky." The imagery and mood are striking. Unfortunately, the majesty of the song never comes across with the repetitive drum beats. Or listen to "I'll Remember You", a tender ballad Dylan revisited for his film Masked and Anonymous in a more traditional arrangement.

Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin noted many of the lyrics were lifted from old movies, even from Star Trek episodes!  Dylan, a Trekkie? I can see it, Kirk and crew travel back in time to visit Dylan at the Cafe Wha?  Can you imagine the conversations between Dylan and Spock? Maybe it was a new cut up technique?  Watch hours of TV and VHS tapes and copy down the best lines? Then create a hit song?  Dylan would refine this technique later in his career - igniting a new wave of controversy.

"Tight Connection to My Heart" is a jumpy milk shop ditty and "Seeing The Real You At Last" explains all with the title.  "Clean Cut Kid" may be a close cousin to "License to Kill", with its theme of youth being corrupted by a greedy, bloodthirsty state. "Trust Yourself" could be the closest Dylan ever came to expressing his personal ethos in song.

"Emotionally Yours" and "Never Gonna Be the Same Again" are pleasant enough filler.

The last two tracks make for a welcome contrast.  "Something's Burning, Baby" features perceptive lyrics directed at a mysterious woman. I especially like the ominous intro on that one.  The melancholy acoustic ballad "Dark Eyes" brings things to a subdued conclusion.

After repeated listens Empire Burlesque gets better. It would be easy to mock Dylan for trying to update his sound as Steve Jobs and many rock critics have done.  But I won't - the songs are solid and live on.


Heylin, Clinton. Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades. London: Faber and Faber, 2011. See pages 574-578 on the making of Empire Burlesque.

Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.  See pages 207-208 on Steve Jobs dismissing Dylan.


  1. Some good songs buried beneath terrible production wrapped in his worst ever album cover. The one time in his career he tried to fit in rather than do his own thing.