Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bob Dylan: Infidels: A Review

With Infidels, Bob Dylan returned to a more comfortable, for him and his audience, songwriting style. After releasing three Christian gospel albums some critics see Infidels as a departure, a return to secular, introspective, songwriting.

Infidels is a companion to Dylan's 1967 release John Wesley Harding, in the sense that they are both the testaments, or end results of periods of vision. Both albums are also rife with religious imagery and question the ethics of the modern world. “capitalsim is above the law” Dylan states in "Union Sundown".

The album was produced by Dylan and Mark Knopfler and was released by Columbia Records in October of 1983. Infidels would be Dylan's most critically-acclaimed in years and was universally hailed from the strong songwriting, though many of the best tracks recorded during these sessions didn't make it onto the LP, the most notable being the classic “Blind Willie McTell”.

Upon listening to Infidels the first thing one notices in the slickness of its sound and overall production. Which at the time I'm sure sounded contemporary but definitely gives the album an '80's feel. As he had been doing since getting together his first group sessions for Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan had a great group of musicians to provide the music that would, as Knopfler later put it, “provide the vehicle for the poetry.” Along with Mark Knopfler, Dylan recruited guitarist Mick Taylor, keyboardist Alan Clark, as well as famed reggae musicians and producers, Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar for the rhythm section.

The opening track, "Jokerman", is littered with Biblical and religious references, but is really more of a political song that attacks the people who Dylan sees as being doomed by their obsession with the superficial.

“Sweetheart Like You” is the second track on the album and possibly the weakest track as well. The song comes off as a sexist love song that not only feels out of touch but makes Dylan sound a bit tired, whiny, and given to self pity.

Many critics have cited the track “Neighborhood Bully” as Dylan's defense of Israel as many moments in the history of the State of Israel are referenced. It's also interesting to listen to this song while taking into account Israel's deplorable treatment of Palestinians.

“License To Kill” is one of the strongest tracks on the album and in a great critique of imperialism both on the earth and of space. Given America's return to its fascination with space travel and its possibilities while President Reagen was in office, "Oh, man has invented his doom/First step was touching the moon.” Seems like a clear condemnation of this mentality. While the rest of the song attacks mankind's relationship to the environment as well as what Dylan sees as our predilection for violence.

“Man Of Peace” with it's overt religious theme and imagery fits more with Dylan's previous recordings. But like some of the other tracks on Infidels it contains the same vibe of man who feels he can no longer connect to the world around him.

“Union Sundown” is a look at a popular topic at this time in the 1980's, that of the decline of U.S. based manufacturing. As the decade began and would continue on, more companies began closing their factories and starting new ones overseas, where labor was cheaper. The companies played the high pay and benefits the workers demanded coupled with the American consumers desire to not have to pay high prices for the goods. The unions and most everyone else blamed corporate greed. The practice continued well into the 1990's and beyond, with everything from manufacturing, customer service, and tech support jobs being sent overseas. The song is interesting in that it highlights Dylan's ability to take a subject and look at it from all angles, yet create a seamless narrative structure, which provides all sides with a voice.

“I and I” is another of the top songs on Infidels. The self pity that hangs heavy on the rest of the album gives way to a strong pessimism which feels more like a return of the Dylan most of his fans were used to listening to. But even with that, one gets a sense of Dylan being lost and confused. The lines, 'Someone else is speakin' with my mouth, but I'm listening only to my heart/I've made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot.', I think best illustrate this sentiment.

The closing track on Infidels is, “Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight”, which is very similar to the closing track, “I'll Be Your Baby Tonight”, off John Wesley Harding. The two tracks even play the same role on the album. Both albums are filled with preaching about the evils of the world and are littered with religious imagery, and both closing tracks are sweet, almost sentimental love songs.

Though Infidels didn't return exactly resurrect Dylan's career, the album would be his strongest of the decade and when his label produced a music video for “Sweetheart Like You”, it ushered Dylan into the MTV era.


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