Bob Dylan’s Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993), which contain covers of old folk and blues tunes, should have come as no surprise to anyone who’d paid attention to his career. Way back on his eponymous 1962 debut, after all, he had headed pretty much in the same direction.
Last year’s Shadows in the Night, a collection of pop standards associated with Frank Sinatra, was another story. So is the new Fallen Angels, which delivers 11 more from Ol’ Blue Eyes’ songbook plus Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark.”
Granted, Dylan performed (beautifully) at Sinatra’s 80th birthday celebration in 1995 and has sung such jazzy pop originals as “Peggy Day.” And more recently, his Theme Time Radio Hour demonstrated that his tastes are as diverse as anyone’s. Still, much of his work over the years has sounded like a musical and lyrical rejection of traditional American pop: “Desolation Row” is located about a million miles from Sinatra’s “Street of Dreams,” and “Visions of Johanna” isn’t exactly in moon-June-spoon territory. Plus, Sinatra’s greatest calling card was his rich, warm baritone while Dylan’s voice, always an idiosyncratic instrument, now sounds more tattered than ever.
It’s a safe bet that Columbia never would have released Fallen Angels if the singer were an unknown. It’s a good thing the label did issue it, though, because Dylan’s 37th studio record contains mostly winning performances.
Note that I said “mostly.” There are moments where his rough, limited-range vocals cause problems, such as on “All or Nothing at All” and “Young at Heart” (the latter an interesting choice for the composer of “Forever Young”); other times, such as on “That Old Black Magic,” his voice is simply a poor match for the material. Still, he does an excellent job with the lion’s share of this program, which includes standards composed by the likes of Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Dylan shines particularly on melancholy numbers like “Maybe You’ll Be There” and “On a Little Street in Singapore,” which call more for pathos than for polish and range.
The production by Jack Frost (aka Robert Zimmerman, aka you know who) wisely avoids embellishments and delivers a live-in-the-studio sound. The understated arrangements are terrific, as is the band, whose performance conveys affection for the material.
Dylan’s own love for this music comes through loud and clear. He treats it seriously—reverently, even—capturing the sentiment and romance of an earlier era without ever veering into camp. He doesn’t reimagine or rearrange these songs, but he changes them nevertheless: Sinatra’s readings are so lush and beautiful that you can sometimes float away on the sweetness of the melody or the vibrancy of the vocal and miss the longing and sadness that the words convey; Dylan’s vocals are much rougher, but his phrasing, as always, is revelatory, and he squeezes every ounce of emotion from the lyrics, forcing you to hear them in a new way.
While I’m one of those who maintains that technical shortcomings notwithstanding, Dylan can be a great singer, his compositional strengths are even more extraordinary. And after two albums of covers in a row, I’m starting to miss hearing new dispatches from his brain. So I’m eager to listen to Dylan’s next collection of originals. Meanwhile, though, I look forward to spending more time with the largely superlative Fallen Angels.