Fallen Angels shows the senior troubadour having a sincere good time with the repertoire.
Since the early days of his career, Bob Dylan has tapped classic American music, inspired by and sometimes freely borrowing from folk and blues standards like the Parchment Farm prison song that he quotes in “Mississippi.” On Fallen Angels, for the second album in a row, Dylan takes on another slice of old America: pop standards from the Great American Songbook.
Dylan’s last shot at the standard repertoire was the Frank Sinatra homage Shadows in the Night, its songs of loss and loneliness mirroring Where Are You? and other beautiful loser concept albums Sinatra recorded for Capitol Records. As Dylan nears what may be the end of his professional days, Shadows was a powerful statement, recalling valedictory albums from Billie Holiday and Chet Baker, whose aged voices struggled with music originally performed by singers at the top of their form. But Dylan and his band strained for effect, and the concept suffered. Though Old Blue Eyes performed all but one of its songs, Fallen Angels isn’t being sold as another homage. With the senior entertainer no longer in his sights, Dylan and the touring band that accompanies him are free to relax, and sound more relaxed. It’s a lighter concept, but it’s a stronger album.
Fallen Angels starts with “Young at Heart,” perhaps more apropos than ironic given that his last album was given away to AARP members. The delivery and arrangement sets the tone for the album’s easygoing performances. As on Shadows, Donnie Herron’s steel guitar charmingly evokes thrift store Hawaiian records, which as often as not had little to do with actual Hawaiian music but was in fact jazz with a tropical sounding pedal steel. Where the kitschy timbre worked against the dramatic, autumnal concept of Shadows, here it lays down the consistent texture of a more lighthearted album.
Herron provides texture again on the ballad “Maybe You’ll Be There” as well, this time on viola. The arrangement suggests the lush strings Axel Stordahl gave Sinatra in the early days of his solo career at Dylan’s own label, Columbia. This is a torch song, its singer hoping to run into his lost beloved somewhere in the crowd. Dylan’s voice is still unmistakably his, with all the cigarette smoke and gravel that goes with it. But gone is the strain that marred his last crack at standards. He sounds more at ease now even when he takes on “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” a song Sinatra first sang with Tommy Dorsey when he still had the sweet voice of a skinny choir boy. Dylan has never had a smooth voice, but he gets through purple lines like “Now in a cottage built of lilacs and laughter” with ease, and a bit of mischief.
The album’s title suggests a fall from grace, its cover showing thick fingers holding up four playing cards. Dylan is an aging angel and gambling man who may not be willing to show you the hand he’s been dealt. But he’ll sing it for you, and the songs he picks tell you that he’s had a good long life and time to reflect upon it. Has Dylan finally abandoned rock ‘n’ roll for the persona of a world-weary lounge singer? Perhaps not. Still, Fallen Angels shows the senior troubadour having a sincere good time with the repertoire.