All the talk about Bob Dylan got me the thinking about how I came about his music. Like everyone else with a radio I heard the classics, the ones that would be on my Columbia House Greatest Hits LP. In college, I was introduced to his music beyond my greatest hits collection and quickly fell in love with Nashville Skyline and Blood On the Tracks.
That was in the ’80s. During most of those years I was more focused on more contemporary music. There was one Dylan album however that I bought at the end of this period of discovery. Empire Burlesque has the distinction of being the last Dylan album I bought and maybe the last ones that the public at large was interested in.
Like many rock royalty at the time Dylan was in a kind of post peak period artistically, but his record sales were nearly as high as they were during his ’60s peak. Much of what I liked about Dylan’s voice was still there, his nasal delivery that in many ways reminded me of James Brown.
Like the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd during the ’80s, Dylan’s music on Empire Burlesque employed soulful backup singers and elements of the blues. I always thought of Dylan being at his best when it was difficult understanding what he was mumbling (like James Brown). On songs like the hit “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love?)” Dylan clearly was at his late period best. On other songs like “Clean Cut Kid” and “Trust Yourself” Dylan’s band sounds almost interchangeable with the Rolling Stones, complete with harmonicas and soulful harmonies.
Empire Burlesque manages to sound modern but not completely trapped in the dated conventions of ’80s rock. I think Dylan’s status as a legend may have limited his willingness to stray too far beyond his musical comfort zone with synthesizers and drum machines (leave that to David Bowie). Like the Rolling Stones, the simple and classic arrangements and analog instruments make this album sound better than most rock releases from 1985.
Besides being my last Dylan album, Empire Burlesque was one of the last albums from Dylan that had a high profile on the charts. His music would slowly loose favor as rock music shifted ever so far from the folk styles he pioneered.