When the Great Director pulls back to frame the ultimate long shot of Bob Dylan’s career from start to finish, it will be interesting to see what the perspective tells us about his two albums of standards associated with Frank Sinatra. My suspicion is that last year’s Shadows in the Night and the new Fallen Angels will be seen as parallel works to the pair of albums, Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, with which, in the early 1990s, he revisited the blues.
Those sessions, recorded in the simple solo acoustic format of his first four albums, seemed to declutter his mind. They were followed by Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times, which contained some of his most creative post-’60s work. And I was struck, listening to him at the Albert Hall last October, by how the decision to deal with songs written by the likes of Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin appeared to have influenced his attitude to the business of singing itself.
You don’t mess around with “Autumn Leaves” or “I’m a Fool to Want You”. You sing them properly or you don’t sing them at all. Dylan seemed to accept that imperative, and to be using it to refine his own delivery. His phrasing has always been exceptionally inventive, but he took the opportunity offered by these old songs to concentrate equally on tonal inflection and the meaning of the lyrics. The effect could be heard in concert when he included a handful of his own songs: “Blowing in the Wind”, “She Belongs to Me” and “Tangled Up in Blue” were treated by their author with a new respect for their original characteristics.
Fallen Angels follows the format of Shadows in the Night, employing his regular small band to create a gentle matrix of guitars and double bass plus brushes. With echoes of Western Swing, the Hot Club of France and Hollywood noir, the format allows Dylan to present these songs from an original point of view. If the new album doesn’t quite match the impact of its predecessor, if it feels a little lacklustre by comparison, that may be something to do with the loss of the element of surprise. But in the greater scheme of things, its significance may not be apparent until we see what he does next.
* A note on the packaging: Ever since Columbia’s art department stopped being in charge of the way Dylan’s new releases look, his albums have been characterised by their shoddy appearance and careless annotation (by contrast with the fastidious approach to the Bootleg Series, of course). Fallen Angels is typical in that respect. It’s all very well being a law unto yourself, but it’s impossible to forgive the failure to credit the composers of such jewels as “Come Rain or Come Shine” (Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer), “All or Nothing at All” (Arthur Altman and Jack Lawrence), or “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” (Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke).