Fallen Angels, another trip by the Bard through the great American songbook, holds up well enough, although it’s hardly ambitious and is, in places, suggestive of a songwriter putting his muse to rest. It may ultimately leave you in a melancholy mood.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
It’s hard to say if Fallen Angels, Bob Dylan’s latest take on the classics, is a novelty, a vanity project or an album meant to be taken seriously. As a successor to Shadows in the Night, the collection that found him first making waves by delving into the American songbook, it holds up well, although many better songs were already mined the first time around.
Not that there’s any shortage of classics here; indeed, “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” “It Had To Be You,” “Young At Heart,” “All Or Nothing At All” and “All The Way” represent some of the best examples of post war popular fare. But then again, so did Dylan given the music he brought to the baby boomer generation via his revolutionary work of the early sixties and well beyond. So why does he vacate his throne and mire himself in the same milieu that other ageing artists like Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart, have fallen into? Maybe because he’s Dylan, and at age 75 he can basically do as he likes. Dylan will be Dylan, as odd and eccentric as he’s often prone to be.
The better answer may be that at this phase of his career, he feels he’s said all he wants to say on his own. True, he was still making great records as recently as the turn of the millennium and writing songs that, if they didn’t seem to boast the gravitas of a “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “Tangled Up In Blue,” still expressed weightier ambition while providing the fodder for covers and critical praise. It would be sad to think that his creative well has dried up to the point where he needs to recycle songs made famous by others, but after earlier efforts based on blues and traditional standards, it’s not out of the question to believe that that might indeed be the case. After the hundreds of songs he’s etched into the popular soundtrack of the past 55 years, is it possible that Dylan’s simply refuse to recycle himself?
Perhaps it’s the fact that he’s now at the age where being a venerable elder draws him closer to others who were once of that age, and considered artists of the ages. The fact that these songs have him emulating Frank Sinatra in particular may reflect the fact that he identifies with Sinatra in spirit, as well as intent. Granted, Bob is no Ol’ Blue Eyes. His voice is, at best, more a croak than a croon, and while he manages to carry a tune, it often seems more by suggestion than by actual enunciation. Dylan’s never been known as a polished singer of course, but Bob being Bob, his voice is an odd but effective trademark. The Dylan of Nashville Skyline with his rich, liberated vocal, may have been better suited to these songs, but both the vulnerability and lack of reserve are admirable, even if unintended.
Thankfully, its his long-time band that is really responsible for its success. Yes, Dylan chose the songs (presumably), but here he only songs, leaving the instrumental chores entirely to his band. And indeed, here again they perform like the seasoned pros they are, be it guitarists Charlie Sexton, Stu Kimball and Dean Parks’ supple sway, the steady anchor of Tony Garnier’s bass or the soft brush work that comes courtesy of drummer George Recile. Their efforts allow the arrangements to do justice to the mood as well as the music, mooting Dylan’s coarse vocals and adding the midnight ambiance so essential to the spirit and sentiment these songs evoke.
Naturally there will be those who wish Dylan would have exorcised his ambitions after only one album. They may lament the fact that the bard is either simply marking time or putting his muse to rest forever. Some may consider it a mere curiosity, and choose to ignore it until Bob gets back on his own road. And yet the real devotees will appreciate it for what it is, just another of the many side roads Dylan has followed throughout the entire course of his career, no less shocking than the aforementioned Nashville Skyline or the much maligned and now fully redeemed Self Portrait.
Love it, hate it or merely tolerate it, the once unthinkable is now a reality so it’s best to at least accept it. In the end, Fallen Angel still finds the Bobster plotting his own course.