'Empire Burlesque' puts the snarl back in Bob Dylan's music. This is not a case of mere pop-radio playability; Dylan achieved that amid the burnished, lushly rolling rhythms of 1983's Infidels, which finally brought him into the Modern World, after a three-, maybe four-, album residence on the moon. No, his twenty-ninth LP is something else: a blast of real rock & roll, funneled through a dense, roiling production custom-chopped-and-channeled by remix wiz Arthur Baker that affords Dylan more pure street-beat credibility than... Read More
he has aspired to since ... well, pick your favorite faraway year. Could there be actual hits hunkering here? Is Dylan "back"? Again? One is tempted to trumpet some such tidings.
But Empire Burlesque is nothing as straightforward as a simple return to rock & roll form for Dylan. True, the album's surging rockers particularly the slunky funk of "Trust Yourself," the steam-driven "Seeing the Real You at Last," and the record's ravishing centerpiece, "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky" reel the listener in with a muscular urgency that's been missing from much of Dylan's latter-day (read, born-again) work. Once hooked, though, one soon realizes his otherworldly spiritual agenda (and his consequent disdain for earthly political stratagems note the album's title) remains as uncompromising as it was on Slow Train Coming or Saved. The dour evangelical fervor of Dylan's Jesus-gonna-getcha phase may have receded, but his dark, apocalyptic fatalism still rumbles through the lyrics.
If the frosty fundamentalist message seems more compelling this time around at least as it crops up in the album's standout rock tracks it's because, for the first time, the music rivals the words for pure pugnacity. (Dylan's earlier born-again bands were dismally dinky, and Infidels, at another extreme, was polished and almost elegiac in parts.) Then, too, the message has evolved somewhat: "Don't put your hope in ungodly man/Or be a slave to what somebody else believes" is hardly an invitation to a beer blast; neither is it the burning box seat in hell reserved for unbelievers in earlier screeds. And when Dylan laments the social toll exacted by "the falling gods of speed and steel" or the brain-fried fate of an all-American boy packed off to fight an insupportable Asian war "They took a clean-cut kid/And they made a killer out of him" his hard-nosed moralism begins to converge with more broadly based humanist concerns.
None of which is to suggest that Dylan is now hedging his convictions for commercial purposes; he is only more artfully elusive in presenting them. The lyrical images in Empire Burlesque, and the sometimes ambiguous point of view, are as slippery as a lapful of fresh-caught fish, but Dylan's basic spiritual stance remains as austere as ever, and as problematic. His attempted synthesis of rock & roll fire a