Nick Bollinger discusses the new Bob Dylan album.
It’s a funny thing that the Great American Songbook – those pre-rock standards immortalised by the likes of Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra – has been more than one rock star’s answer to the ‘how to age gracefully’ question. In recent years the music rock’n’roll originally chased away has been revived, not just by Clapton but also Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga - and Bob Dylan.
On Fallen Angels, his second consecutive volume of interpretations of the Great American Songbook, Dylan sounds his 75 years on a set of songs generally associated with Frank Sinatra, yet sings with far more delicacy than he’s brought to his own songs in recent years.
On one level, it is another of the outrages with which Dylan has peppered his career – like the way he left folk music for rock’n’roll, and later rock’n’roll for gospel. Yet as with all of Dylan’s unforeseen tangents, it has a solid musical foundation. And something Dylan perhaps doesn’t get enough credit for is his musicality. So much attention has been lavished on his extraordinary gift for words and his unconventional voice that his purely musical instincts are often overlooked. But the music he has released since 2001’s Love and Theft, when he began producing his own records and using his own band, have been some of his most sophisticated. And his intimate, small-band arrangements of ‘songs usually performed with full orchestration are masterful.
Dylan makes his reverence for these songs clear in the way he sings them. His pitch may be shaky in places, but he honors the melodies and finds something in the words that evidently speaks to his mood.
Somehow lines like “all I see is grief and gloom, ‘til the crack of doom” (from ‘Melancholy Mood’) sound Dylanesque in a way they never have before. And Dylan’s treatment of the material is more imaginative than the lush approach most singers take with these tunes, though it’s not unique. Willie Nelson took his own countrified tour of this golden age with his beautiful and restrained Stardust album in the 70s.
But beyond the obvious musicality of Fallen Angels, is it really essential? Has Dylan found the way to grow old gracefully, or has he run out of things to say yet can’t find a way to stop? Does Dylan’s career end, as a friend of mine recently asked, not with a bang but a Sinatra? It is certainly odd that this most prolific of lyricists appears, at this point, to have run out of words of his own. On the other hand, he has often recorded other people’s songs; his very first album was full of them, and the hot streak of the past seventeen years was preceded by two discs of old folk covers. Is this just Dylan clearing his throat for another burst of lyrical inspiration? At 75 he is still touring, still recording, still impossible to second-guess.
Songs featured: Maybe You’ll Be There, All The Way, It Had To Be You, Melancholy Mood, Young At Heart.
Fallen Angels is available on Columbia Records.