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.
Certainly, Bob Dylan has taken risks that may have seemed ill-advised at the time, but right from the very beginning, his ‘Judas’-like betrayals have been made in the name of expanding what’s possible and extending vocabulary, both lyrical and musical, and not as a way of attracting attention. When he first “went electric” in 1965, lots of people hated it, stamped their feet and wanted him to strap on his Woody Guthrie working man’s guitar and unplug again. But we all know that time does funny things, and when “Like A Rolling Stone” was voted the No. 1 rock song of all time by Rolling Stone, no one complained about the funky organ or the jangling guitars.
It’s been a familiar pattern in Dylan’s work. His first work to be released after being sidelined by a motorcycle accident in the summer of 1966 was the bucolic, stripped-down John Wesley Harding. When it came out in 1967, psychedelic music was in full swing and Dylan’s album of folk rambles and simple parables vied for space on record store racks with Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love and Cream’s Wheels Of Fire. By the time the rest of the world had caught up with him musically, Dylan had already moved a long way on down the road.
Perhaps it’s because Dylan came so strongly onto the scene as a very young man that he was typecast so early and so easily. It’s something Dylan has clearly struggled with, but even when he has purposely recorded music designed to confuse his audience—as he claimed to do with Self-Portrait, his first album of cover songs from 1970—the passage of time has often been all that was needed to change people’s perspectives. The release of the archival set Another Self-Portrait from a few years ago, in which many of the recordings were stripped of their string arrangements gave the music a whole new context and a subsequent reappraisal of a long-dismissed album that surprised many people.
It’s a familiar theme that has been repeated over and over again. Dylan’s Christian albums that were castigated for so long have also received a lot of sympathetic reassessments in recent years. Listened to with fresh ears, Slow Train Coming is certainly one of the most intense, beautifully written and performed gospel records ever recorded. Take a listen through it if you haven’t heard it recently; it is jaw-dropping in its power and perfection.
More closely related to the release of Shadows In The Night and Fallen Angels perhaps are Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, Dylan’s two albums of blues and folk covers from the early ‘90s. On those records, he shared versions of some of his favorite traditional songs that he grew up with. When the first album, Good As I Been To You, was announced as an “intimate acoustic” record, people were very excited and expected a return to form, but when faced with the raw and challenging nature of the songs he sung, many shied away from the intensity. The next record, World Gone Wrong, with songs like “Blood In My Eyes,” was darker and edgier still, and left many of Dylan’s fans wondering why he had to push even further into such antiquated directions. It’s a much better record than Good As I Been To You because of the ease and looseness of the recordings.
A similar dynamic is at play with Fallen Angels when compared to Shadows In The Night. Dylan has been singing cover songs during his concerts for many years now, and Sinatra tunes like “Lucky Old Sun” have made appearances from time to time, so none of his old fans were very surprised when Shadows In The Night was announced. It did quite well in the press, but most of the coverage relied on expounding about the novelty aspect of the project and the absurdity of a guy with a voice like Dylan’s taking on such silken, sophisticated material. Still, at this stage of the game, the press was indulgent towards whatever the “old master” wanted to sing, but underlying this indulgence there was a subtext that urged people not to worry and that this was just a one-off. You know, “one Sinatra covers record, fine, but why, oh why, make a second one? Are you trying to kill us? Only someone with a voice like Michael Buble should venture into this territory.”
Personally, I’m glad he didn’t listen to voices like that—not that he ever has listened to anyone’s advice. To start with, the arrangements on Fallen Angels are wonderful and sumptuous. Recorded with his longtime touring band, it’s easy to hear how working with this music has breathed new life into them as a performing unit. Their playing is loose, easy and natural, and they sound like they’re having a lot of fun. Special mention should be made of Tony Garnier’s warm and full bass playing as well as Donnie Herron’s lush pedal and lap steel textures.
For his part, Dylan continues to sing with a precision and fluidity that he doesn’t always bring to bear. If anything, his approach is looser and more confident than on the performances in Shadows In The Night. He takes on each song with complete sincerity and when it works, he remains a great—if somewhat ragged—singer and interpreter of the emotions suggested by each work. What Dylan does with his voice is obviously different than what Sinatra set out to do with his, but their perspectives are equally interesting. Sinatra was silk and sophistication, making the hurts expressed by the narrator of his songs an error, a mistake of outrageous fortune. Singing the same lyrics, Dylan’s the down-and-out guy looking for an even break; victory would be a greater surprise than all the shit that’s raining down on him. Given all the bad luck the guy is singing about, we’re not surprised when he occasionally slides off-key. He doesn’t have Sinatra’s walls of polish and protection. They sing the same songs, but the outcomes are different. The stories that shimmer and glide between phrases, suggested in the pauses, are what makes them so compelling. Listen to Dylan sing “Melancholy Mood” and you’ll never ask “how low can you go?” ever again. Yeah, Dylan sings the same songs, but the outcomes, the suggestions are from a different universe than the one Sinatra sang from.
When you listen to “Young At Heart,” my favorite cut from Fallen Angels, don’t ask yourself if Dylan’s interpretations sound as good as Sinatra’s, or worse still how they’ll stack up against “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “Like A Rolling Stone.” You’ll drive yourself crazy if you do. This is music that should be enjoyed on its own terms.
In the end, Bob Dylan has nothing to prove. Fallen Angels is his 37th studio album, so in many ways this is just one more. No big deal. Dylan has written and recorded thousands of songs of his own, and putting out these ones isn’t going to make Bringing It All Back Home or Blood On The Tracks any less significant.
I understand why Dylan wanted to explore these songs: They hold a key. They represent and explore emotional landscapes that we don’t encounter much anymore. In a world before therapy, Oprah and Dr. Phil, there was nothing to do when your heart was breaking but gather your manly resolve and carry on. These are songs where the singer wakes up to find himself on the other end of the world, missing home and unable to write the letter or make the phone call to say the worlds that could change something. Like the 1945 Otto Preminger film that Fallen Angels paraphrases its title from, Dylan’s latest is a noir journey through a world of guns, dames, rainy streets and crippling regret. But, more than all of that, Fallen Angels is still a hell of an enjoyable album to listen to, and one that I’m sure will be appreciated far more with the passage of time.