Release Date: May 20, 2016
Record label: Columbia
If you look at it from a certain perspective, it’s tempting to consider Bob Dylan’s career as little more than a series of caprices, impulses and perverse shifts in direction, designed as much to baffle and infuriate his listeners as entertain them. But that would be a mistake and a terrible misreading of what’s driven Mr. Dylan for the past 50 years or so.
Fallen Angels may have been recorded at the same session as 2015's moody Shadows in the Night, but its tone is very different. Call Fallen Angels the Nice 'n' Easy to the No One Cares of Shadows in the Night: they're both tributes to Frank Sinatra, but the 2016 album is light at heart. It's filled with songs of love, not heartbreak, and Dylan's band plays the numbers as sweet shuffles that function as a counterpart to the gloomy saloon tunes that filled Shadows in the Night.
Fallen Angels, Bob Dylan's thirty-seventh studio album slinks into the room with understated, but supremely pleasant pedal steel, guitar and strings. The atmosphere is unchanged from 2015's Shadows In The Night, with the same dimly lit Americana lounge feel guiding this effort along. And like last year's record, the result is a beautifully relaxing but reflective jaunt through the Great American Songbook.
There’s a passage in Bob Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles Vol 1, that recalls a conversation with Eliot Roberts who at the time was booking dates for a forthcoming tour. Dylan was disappointed with Roberts’ plans. Aside from a few, all the shows were new territory. Dylan made his case to Roberts: 'I need to go back to the same places twice, even three times a year – it doesn't matter.' Understandably, Roberts disagrees: 'You can’t play the same towns every year, nobody’s gonna get an erection over that.
There’s something reassuring about hearing Bob Dylan’s weathered voice, battered by over 50 years of recording and performing, crooning “and if you should survive to a hundred and five / look at all you’ll derive out of being alive / and here is the best part / you have a head start / if you are among the very young at heart”, in the opener to his latest covers album, Fallen Angels. Dylan shows every intention of surviving until at least a hundred and five (hell, that’s 30 years from now, imagine how many great albums the man could put out during that span!), and he’s already derived more out of being alive than anybody could have imagined. Bob Dylan is a legend, the greatest songwriter in rock history, and if anybody has earned the right to ease into a warmly nostalgic set of well-worn classics it is he.
“Do you see yourself more as a singer or a poet?” they famously asked a 25-year-old Bob Dylan at a press conference in San Francisco in 1965. Fidgety and fumbling about with a cigarette, he gave a cheeky little grin as he told the giggling reporters – “Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man.” Fifty years later Dylan as a pop warbler seems even more far-fetched. That nasally, undulating vocal sneer has only got more incomprehensible and weathered with age and as a performer the folk legend has grown curmudgeonly and introverted over time.
You can go all the way back to the beginning of “What the fuck is Bob Dylan doing now?” and find jazz. “Peggy Day” from Nashville Skyline—his first detour into melodic crooning—is snappy Western swing; following that was Self Portrait’s notorious take on Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon,” and New Morning’s hepcat pastiche, “If Dogs Run Free. ” Dylan’s earliest Frank Sinatra tribute dates back five decades and only found its first official release in 2014: the addled Basement Tapes-era riff on the Johnny Mercer classic “One for My Baby (One More for the Road).
Dylan plumbs his good ideas fully: consider the mid-'60s rock'n'roll speed-trial of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde, or his fin de siècle roots trilogy Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times. So it's unsurprising that Fallen Angels continues his Great American Songbook foraging via songs made famous by Frank Sinatra, whose colloquial delivery he evidently learned plenty from, and whose massive catalog includes many of the best songs ever written. It's really not far removed from where Dylan began, taking America's temperature through traditional folk and blues.
The meeting of grizzled musical icon and great American songbook has yielded variable results, but Dylan got it right with last year’s Shadows in the Night, his take on songs once sung by Frank Sinatra. He shows the same sure hand and musician’s affection here for a collection of standards by writers such as Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. His vocals are engaging, the arrangements are sensitive and spare – gently brushed drums and steel guitar on Polka Dots and Moonbeams, dabs of strings on Skylark – and the whole thing drifts along with an easygoing charm.
The thought strikes, part-way through Bob Dylan’s second album of standards from the mid-20th century American songbook, that it sounds like nothing so much as the unreleased soundtrack to a later Woody Allen movie. It has the same tastefully muted jazzy arrangements, the same love for the music combined with a slight sense of didacticism (Listen! You WILL love these songs as much as I do), the same oddly absurd disconnection from modernity. The arrangements aren’t faithful in any way to those that made these songs famous – That Old Black Magic becomes a rockabilly shuffle – but there’s a certain loveliness to them.
Nobody ever expected Bob Dylan to release an album of old standards popularized by Frank Sinatra. Even as he teased last year’s Shadows in the Night with lead single “Full Moon and Empty Arms”, the notion still seemed too strange to be true. Never mind that this same artist once turned inward and “plugged in” just as his acoustic strum and nasal register had become emblematic of the ’60s folk movement; quickly fled his bully pulpit and turned recluse a couple years later after having been anointed the voice of his generation; or suddenly became “saved” in the ’80s only to release a series of albums that would’ve made both Jesus and Judas cry out: “Father, forgive him, for he knows not what he does.
What is there you can possibly write about Bob Dylan that hasn’t been printed a thousand times already? Quite simply, the venerable Minnesotan is one of a tiny handful of artists who can truly be said to have transcended their chosen creative form to become quasi-mythical figures, with a towering body of work that is as familiar as it is incalculably influential. However, none of that means that Fallen Angels – Dylan’s 37th studio album of his astonishing 55 year career – is a automatically great record. It isn’t.
At 75, Bob Dylan is turning black-and-white. The mysterious nature of his latest albums, their stark artwork and the lighting and composition of his most recent TV appearances possess many hallmarks of film noir classics, where things aren't always what they seem. These seem to resonate with Dylan because, though of a bygone era, their insights into human nature hold up.
The songs collectively known as the Great American Songbook apparently are like those famous potato chips, in that singers who start sampling them quickly discover you can’t stop at just one. Bob Dylan has joined the long roster of esteemed musicians who have turned initial explorations of the works of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Sammy Cahn, and their peers from the first half of the 20th century into extended visits so they can delve more deeply into some of the most exquisitely crafted songs ever written. This is a modal window.
Every now and then, a new-model Bob Dylan comes along to replace the old one, much to the delight or consternation of fans. Some Dylans have been better than others. Most everyone digs the idealistic protest singer, the wild-eyed rock ’n’ roll Picasso, and the reclusive basement taper. Fewer miss the live Bob Dylan At Budokan Vegas bandleader, the Christian zealot, or the guy in the ’80s with the blazers and earrings.
Bob Dylan's new album, "Fallen Angels," is a return to the songs of Tin Pan Alley. Bob Dylan's new album, "Fallen Angels," is a return to the songs of Tin Pan Alley. With "Fallen Angels" (Columbia), Bob Dylan makes at least one thing clear: It seems we got him all wrong, again. Just when it appears possible to fix some aspect of Dylan's art and music, he does something that makes any attempt to pin him down look misguided.