"EMPIRE BURLESQUE." Bob Dylan. Columbia.
There are two sides (at least) to the public Bob Dylan: (a) the totally possessed artist who follows his intellect and instincts to emotional and philosophical extremes, leaving even long-time fans puzzled by the latest twist in his music and outlook, and (b) the shrewd professional who knows when it's time to temper that unruly side of his personality so that he can reconnect with his audience. Yes, even Bob Dylan reads the sales charts.
Both Dylans are on display in "Empire Burlesque," but mostly the professional. This is his most assured and overtly commercial collection in years, which is why Columbia Records is beating the drums more strongly than for anything he has done since "Blood on the Tracks."
That 1975 LP was widely heralded as the "return of the old Dylan" and that phrase may pop up again this time from the '60s fans who were vaguely disappointed or confused by some of Dylan's post-"Tracks" efforts, though several of them (notably "Street Legal," "Slow Train Coming" and "Infidels") are among his most penetrating.
"Empire Burlesque" is understandable and reassuring Dylan. Rather than make the leaps of faith that give his work such commanding yet radical edges, it summarizes much of what he has been saying in recent years--and delivers it in a more easily absorbed and contemporary package.
If the self-produced album doesn't abound with revelation, it is masterfully designed, thanks in part to production assistance from Arthur Baker, the highly regarded New York producer/remixer who gave such character last year to Bruce Springsteen's dance version of "Dancing in the Dark."
Dylan's themes continue to deal with corruption and faith, in both personal and public affairs. And it's hard to listen to more than a few lines without encountering the special Dylan touch.
Like much of the album, the opening "Tight Connection to Your Heart" and "The Real You at Last" are raucous tales that combine striking imagery and wit. Sample, "When I met you baby, you didn't show no visible scars / You could ride like Annie Oakley / You could shoot like Belle Starr."
"I'll Remember You" is a love song with some of the gentle, cleansing spirit of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." In one of his most affecting vocals, Dylan sings with a directness that exposes the embarrassing calculation of so much pop music. There's a hesitant confession in the lyrics, as if someone is building up his courage to express his devotion: "Didn't I . . . didn't I try to love you / Didn't I . . . didn't I try to care / Didn't I sleep, didn't I weep beside you / With the rain blowin' in your hair."
He follows with "Clean Cut Kid," a statement about the corruption of innocence, specifically of the young men sent to Vietnam. The song sounded like a throwaway when the Textones recorded it for their album, but this longer version has far more impact. One thing that keeps Dylan forever young (and sharp) as a writer is his ability to delight in a great rhyme, even if it has almost nothing to do with the song except to make you wonder about how it fits. In "Clean Cut Kid," he throws this curve at you, then slips away while you try to piece it together: "He went to Hollywood to see Peter O'Toole / He bought a Rolls-Royce and drove it into a swimming pool."
If some of the songs seem merely professional and flat, there are still moments that remind you just how far above the crowd Dylan remains: the naked emotion of his voice in "Emotionally Yours," the Stones-tinged, apocalyptic alarm of "When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky," and the prayerful homage of "Dark Eyes," a song whose chilling social message would have added a lot of substance to the "We Are the World" album.
"Dark Eyes" is a statement about America, sharing, greed and pending doom. Dylan has written about those themes a lot, but his outlook has changed. In his early songs, his viewpoint was filled with anger and impatience. Twenty years later, Dylan is sadder and more questioning, wondering if anything is really going to change. He certainly knows that the people who carried banners in the '60s but have become complacent aren't likely to accomplish that mission.