"Empire Burlesque" is the most self-realized Bob Dylan record since "Blood on the Tracks" 11 years ago. Although his voice has not improved with age -- would we really want it to at this point? -- Dylan has apparently rediscovered, or at least refocused, his songwriting skills and navigated past the narrow religious dogma of his most recent albums.
On those albums Dylan often seemed trapped in webs of fundamentalism (Christian) and orthodoxy (Jewish, political), although he may well have constructed them as shelter from the storm of his own moral imagination. "Empire Burlesque" (Columbia FC 40110) posits a more familiar Dylan, one who is beginning to re-engage with social issues, and perhaps more importantly, to explore once again the rugged emotional terrain that defines the best of his later work.
Several songs here -- "Seeing the Real You at Last," "I'll Remember You" and "Emotionally Yours" -- rank with the best love songs Dylan has written, and several others are close. This is a reflective, meditative record, what you'd expect from Dylan at 44. It's not unlike the growing up reflected on Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," although the concern is less the work of hands than the work of hearts.
Like the songs about separation and divorce from his wife Sara that were the only redeeming feature of 1981's "Street Legal," Dylan's new songs suggest that in love, everything is eventually revealed. Unfortunately, many of these truths are bitter -- the function of the poet-songwriter, then, is to strip away the defenses that obscure those truths and let catharsis take hold. And because the disintegration of a relationship is such a cataclysmic event, Dylan reacts with a whole set of emotions: resentment, confusion, jealousy, sympathy, vindictiveness, resignation.
On "Seeing the Real You at Last," he lashes out at the disintegration of a key relationship with escalating anger, vacillating between self-blame and self-denial before finally accepting, "I got troubles, I think maybe you got troubles/I think maybe we better leave each other alone."
Dylan gets the last word in: "Whatever you gonna do/Please do it fast/I'm still trying to get used to/seeing the real you at last." Yet even this stance suggests the defensiveness echoed in "Never Gonna Be the Same Again," in which Dylan concedes his lover's immense influence while tempering it with the thought, "Don't worry baby, I don't mind leaving/I'd just like it to be my idea." He's like the fighter going down, instinctively throwing one last wild punch at the air.
And then he turns around and writes "I'll Remember You" and "Emotionally Yours," two gorgeous ballads that offer essentially the same bittersweet sentiment in a positive wrapping. "I'll Remember You," which benefits from a gently rolling melody, a spare arrangement and the same heavily echoed ambiance of "Every Grain of Sand" (the best song from "Shot of Love"), is a meditation on the mourning after, its very casualness hiding a deeper hurt over the simple twists of fate that buffet people in their relationships.
"Emotionally Yours" features a chorus line anthem reminiscent of "Forever Young" and another simple arrangement. Dylan manages to be plaintive without being maudlin -- these are eloquent confessions of loneliness couched in compassion. His best songs have always been those that reveal deeply felt emotions, as if depth alone could illuminate conditions of the heart.
"Tight Connection of the Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)," the album's first single, engages both anger and appreciation in ironic counterpoint over a modified reggae beat that comes off as a harder "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." While Dylan's phrasing is typically intriguing, the song's impact is diluted by a soul chorus and an obtuse energy that is resolved only in the last couplet: "Never could learn to drink that blood and call it wine/Never could learn to hold you, love, and call you mine."
There's plenty of fodder on "Empire Burlesque" for Dylanologists who feel cheated when his new songs emerge apparently transparent, but Dylan still manages to leave even his most obvious love songs open, or at least available, to interpretation. "Clean Cut Kid," an easy entry point, is probably about the destruction of the American Dream at the hands of the Military Industrial Complex, a personalized update on "Masters of War" in which the Clean Cut Kid emerges from Vietnam scathed.
"They sent him back into the rat race without any brakes," Dylan growls in hoarse exhortation over a stark, funky New Orleans-style shuffle. This cut has the rough, casual edge of the "Basement Tapes," and provokes Dylan's most insistent singing since his evangelical Christian period -- as well as one of his pithiest postsuicide lines: "His mama walks the floor, his daddy weeps and moans/They gotta sleep together in a home they don't own."
The Kid is the only fully realized character to emerge on "Empire Burlesque," although Dylan addresses himself in "Trust Yourself," one more song dedicated to the proposition that he who follows Dylan will not be getting an accurate reading on exactly which way the wind is blowing. "Trust yourself/and you won't be disappointed when vain people let you down," he warns, adding, "don't trust me to show you the truth . . . if you want somebody you can trust, trust yourself." This is as close as he gets to proselytizing.
Unfortunately, this song is the first to disappear from the mind, followed quickly by "Something's Burning Baby," a recapitulation of disconnected love that echoes several older Dylan songs ("Is Our Love in Vain?" in particular) but never delivers on its implied tension.
For the apocalypse fans, there's the rocking "When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky," a sort of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall II" couched in oblique strategies of love. It's Dylan up to his old tricks, and the song most likely to provide hours of discussion.
"Empire Burlesque's" most intriguing song is the closing cut, "Dark Eyes." This is the Bob Dylan we seldom hear now, alone with his guitar and harmonica (still chilling after all these years). It's also the most overtly poetic of the new songs, halfway between broadside ballad and confessional. It carries some of the same melancholy spirit as "Girl From the North Country," with sentiments of love loss transformed into a lament for human folly.
"I live in another world where life and death are memorized," Dylan whispers, "where the earth is strung with lovers' pearls and all I can see are dark eyes." This is a haunting landscape of mild insanity akin to Goya and Grosz, a song that stays with you long after the record is packed away.
Although this is Dylan's 23rd album of new songs, it is the first that he has produced himself. He does it surprisingly well, with none of the self-indulgence that has marred his earlier '80s work. In what has been misread as a commercial accommodation, he did turn to Arthur Baker for remixing, but Baker's presence here is much less noticeable than on his revisions for Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen. For the most part, Baker keeps things clean and brittle, focusing on the supple rhythm sections (particularly the Sly Dunbar/Robbie Shakespeare tandem) and the occasional guest shots (guitarists Ron Wood on "Clean Cut Kid" and Mick Taylor on "Tight Connection to My Heart," the album's most up-tempo cuts).
In the past Bob Dylan has often wreaked havoc on his fans' expectations, but the 10 songs on "Empire Burlesque" represent a return to form, his most personal and eloquent album since "Desire." Its best songs are haunting structures built around simple melodies and honest sentiments, which may be why the album sneaks up on you after several listenings. As Sam Shepard wrote during the Rolling Thunder tour, the point isn't to figure Dylan out, but to take him in. Do that, and the man can still work wonders.