Today’s Bob’s birthday. For me (like Bob, a Gemini), today’s a travel day, flying home to Boston after two weeks in hometown Orlando. This twin has his feet in two cities, his mind in two places. Bob, meanwhile, on “Empire Burlesque” seems firmly planted in the 80s. His hair on the cover curls out big and wild, his bright percussion takes the fore, his arrangements synthesize blues and bebop, rock and soul ballad. From the first track, “Tight Connection to my Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?),” it’s clear this album will lean on rhythm as its scaffolding. “Someday maybe I’ll remember to forget / … / Has anybody seen my love?” The beat drives the song into a finger-snapping, hip-bumping propulsion, while Bob, providing aphorisms like “what looks large from a distance up close up ain’t never that big,” invests the songs with a relaxed, casual tone. The colloquial voice and the beat of the album mimic the ethos of a carefree heart pinging the depths of love.
I like how this album forgoes the political statements for personal revelation. “Seeing the Real You at Last” celebrates the rewards of patient, long-term romance. In “Never Gonna Be the Same Again,” Dylan defers his own ego to a strong lover who demands more of him. The smoothest track, “Emotionally Yours,” is as freely giving a love song as you’ll find. Only “Clean-Cut Kid,” in which “They made a killer out of him / That’s what they did” gestures explicitly to that societal “they,” that force of greed and corruption so prevalent in Dylan’s late 70s – early 80s material. And still, “Clean-Cut Kid” is up-tempo, danceable, fresh and dynamic.
This album is diverse in its arrangements, personal in its subject matter. Its title suggests a parody of empire, but its content looks inward, within the songwriter. If anything, the variety of musical stylings become transformed through their performance, and my big knock on this album is that those arrangements, derivative as they are, stand as artifacts of the time, rather than timeless musical artifacts.
Do I get this album? Considering the general downturn of classic rock acts during the 80s, this is a highly respectable effort. Do I need the previous albums to get it? I will say that Bob, here in his early 40s, has matured into his nasal drawl–the sound at times of a floor-fan blade knocking its cover–and it’s fun to see that progression, to hear his voice age. Do I like it? Happy birthday Bob!