I’ve long admired at least some of the songs on Empire Burlesque in the same manner as I’ve admired anything else by Bob; “I’ll Remember You” and “Dark Eyes” have always struck me in particular. My trouble with the album as a whole was always the production; “Never Be the Same Again” was a major offender, having once driven me, while listening on headphones, into the very depths of The Fear, necessitating a two hour walk into The Field.
Time, and my switching of principal mind-altering substance to wine, have conspired to take the edge off my unwillingness to so much as countenance what my demons still call ‘80s production. Truth, though, as I see it, is that an awful lot of it’s awful shite, but that tends to be when coupled with poor musicianship and/or a lack of imagination, roots and, for want of a better word for there is no better word, soul.
Soul is the key word here; soul in the broad sense of the realness of intent and performance, and soul in the sense of the musical idiom that goes by that name. This is nothing wholly new to Dylan, his two albums with Jerry Wexler being cases in point, but it was Empire Burlesque where he immersed himself fully in secular soul waters, writing songs with the vocabulary of Smokey Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland. “Emotionally Yours”, covered memorably by The O’Jays is perhaps the best example of this, along with “I’ll Remember You”, but I urge you to listen to “Trust Yourself” and The Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” in the same sitting; the production on the former is perhaps not wholly sympathetic to the intended feel, but there can be no doubting the nod to the latter, albeit in a concoction that is one part empowerment to twenty-seven parts bitter cynicism.
There is on the album a bona fide stab at stadium rock in the form of “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky” (a fine song a rendition of which with the E. Street Band I would more often than not prefer to hear), and a handful more fairly straight rockers (the best of which is “Seeing the Real You At Last”, a song that it didn’t take me too long to appreciate, and that I’ve dug fully since the Fleadh Festival of 2004), and then of course there’s the acoustic “Dark Eyes”. The overall feel, though, and not only in the overtly soul-inflected numbers, is of Soul Music, that finest of pop forms. A return to Muscle Shoals with Jerry Wexler and his people, and a shade or two of the glorious, dirty, dense, frantic sound of Street Legal (pop’s most underrated album if I’m the judge) might very well have improved Empire Burlesque; that said, it’s a solid album devoid of bad songs and with plenty of truly grand ones.
Further Notes writ immediately afterwards:
N.B. Revise to make reference to “Seeing the Real You At Last” [I did that]
Also the abhorrent album cover… It’s Ian McLagan’s shirt, but that doesn’t explain the jacket or the graphic design; God couldn’t explain the jacket or the graphic design.
Five minutes after completing this mini-essay, I feel compelled to refute the suggestion that Empire Burlesque was Bob’s first full immersion in soul, even secular soul – Street Legal surely trumps that – Changing of the Guards, Baby Stop Crying, True Love… I think the argument still carries water, but needs refining – clarification regarding song (specifically lyric) structure… E.Y. and I.R.Y less ‘wordy’, though still very much Bob… though even that’s spurious… I’m talking shite, frankly, though I stand by most of it – it’s a fine album, sure, but probably the main reason I wrote about Empire Burlesque rather than Street Legal is the complexity of my feelings regarding the latter, a truly great album the importance of which to myself I can’t currently express…
But listen to Empire… it’s tasty…
Please, fellow Bobcats, I know what I wanted to say here but tied myself up in knots – mercy! If you can fill in any gaps in my thoughts, don’t hesitate to do so – you may know my mind better than I do. In fact, I’m sure that you do.