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Bob Dylan, ‘Fallen Angels': Album Review

Columbia Records
Columbia Records

Bob Dylan is an artist who rarely looks back. But there have been exceptions: the Christian Trilogy from the late ’70s and early ’80s, the pair of stripped-down traditional folk albums he released in the early ’90s before his comeback and now Fallen Angels, a sequel to Shadows in the Night, 2015’s nostalgic return to standards originally recorded by Frank Sinatra in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.

The first album caught a lot of fans off guard as one of rock’s most original (and cynical) voices applied his nasal croon to decades-old songs seeping in sentiment. Some of the twentieth century’s greatest singers – including Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and Barbra Streisand – have tackled these numbers over the years, but Dylan’s affection for them was evident. And it’s just as evident on Fallen Angels, a dozen songs penned by such late greats as Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer and Jimmy Van Heusen.

And it goes down easier this time around, with the initial surprise of hearing one of rock’s most abrasive, polarizing and greatest singers cozy up to well-worn standards replaced by the rich and warm tones Dylan consistently manages here. It’s a long way from “Positively 4th Street,” but so is his much of his catalog by now.

The arrangements have always been key to these songs, whether given lush orchestral padding or stripped down to their most late-night desperate. Dylan’s takes on Fallen Angels fall somewhere in between, coaxing sensitive performances from the band while staying true to the timeless melodies that have kept these songs in the public consciousness for decades. Sticking with the traditional instrumentation and deliberate vocal phrasing that have driven his albums for the past 20 years, Dylan covers these ballads like an old pro. They suit him just as he much as he’s suited to them at this point in his long career.

It’s no accident that “Young at Heart” leads the set. Sinatra launched a commercial comeback with his 1953 version, heralding both a new chapter in his musical life and signaling his most creative period. Dylan makes the song, and its lyrics (the title reflects the content), a statement of purpose and introduction. You’re only as old as you want to be, says Dylan (who’ll turn 75 on May 24) – or, as Carolyn Leigh’s classic words put it, “Life gets more exciting with each passing day.”

It’s a bit jarring at first to hear the author of such barbed put-downs as “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Idiot Wind” embrace such a greeting-card attitude. But if Dylan is winking at us, he sure doesn’t let on. He delivers “All the Way,” “Melancholy Mood” and “Come Rain or Come Shine” with equal warmth and sincerity. Whatever cynicism greeted Dylan on Shadows in the Night disappears with this expertly executed follow-up.

That’s not to say Dylan doesn’t seem a bit ill-fitted to the material at times. A more delicate singer is occasionally needed – “It Had to Be You” sounds stiff, while “Polkadots and Moonbeams” and “Skylark” could use softer touches – and the creakiness of some of the tunes can’t help but reveal themselves. This isn’t an essential Dylan album like Blonde on Blonde or even Modern Times, but there’s just as much commitment to the material as there was to the songs on those records.

And unlike other aging rockers’ forays into the genre (see Rod Stewart‘s four commercially successful but increasingly tiresome standards collections), Dylan makes it all sound so effortless on Fallen Angels. It’s an attribute he’s been applying to his music for years, whether hitching onto Woody Guthrie’s train on his debut, plugging into an electric dynamic on Bringing It All Back Home, surveying his crumbling marriage on Blood on the Tracks or gazing at mortality on Tempest. Sometimes looking back is the easiest thing to do.

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