ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Fallen Angels’ sees Dylan being frustratingly safe
If nothing else, Bob Dylan is consistently inconsistent.
Last year, when the Duluth-born, Hibbing-raised music icon dropped “Shadows in the Night,” an album comprised of standards that were notably recorded by Frank Sinatra, it seemed like another one of his patented left turns. Here’s a guy who has made frustrating his own fan base a major part of his career. Whether it’s eliciting cries of “Judas!” from an audience horrified at his decision to pick up an electric guitar; singing country music in a funny voice; becoming a Christian rocker; or putting out one of his most acclaimed albums in his 50s after people had stopped expecting greatness from the man — Bob Dylan has made a life of being slippery and elusive.
The release of “Fallen Angels,” a sequel of sorts to last year’s “Shadows in the Night,” slots right in with Dylan’s history of luck-pushing. The 2015 release seemed like a recipe for disaster — the famously nasal Dylan taking on the famously famous-for-being-one-of-the-best-singers-ever Sinatra felt like a joke concept — but he made it work by not trying to match Sinatra note for note and just letting his dry, craggy voice lay bare, exposed and true.
As it was last time around, Dylan’s clear affection for the Great American Songbook is again evident here. The sparse, jazzy songs feel loved, gently caressed by the musicians who support Dylan’s vocals, which are again playful and sentimental without going over the top into maudlin territory. Even though the idea of Bob Dylan singing a song like “Young At Heart” may have seemed like an untoward idea until very recently, he makes it work by not being too demanding of the listener’s emotions. Dylan’s not pulling an ego move here, asking to be considered on the same level as Sinatra as a vocalist. He’s just singing some songs he likes in the 75-year-old voice he’s got to sing with in 2016.
But this is where the frustration starts to creep in. It’s hard not to want to demand more of one of the great songwriters than covers of songs by other great songwriters. One could assume Dylan is in a phase similar to the one he went through in the early ’90s — when he put out two covers albums in a row before eventually putting out the masterwork “Time Out of Mind” — but the truth is that there’s not a lot of time for Dylan to make more Dylan. It’s a selfish feeling, but the whole time “Fallen Angels” is playing, it’s tough to not wish the man were singing his own words and playing his own chord progressions. Listening to him tiptoe atop a lite-jazz “It Had to Be You” isn’t unpleasant, but it feels too safe, too common a late-career move. At this stage, watching Dylan mimic the path of Rod Stewart is a bit frustrating.
On the other hand, though, what more does the guy need to do? He’s been releasing albums since 1962, and he’s written more enduring, classic tunes than many of the greatest artists and bands of all time put together. Maybe doing standards is the one thing he always intended to do and never got around to, before now. Maybe it’s this or no Dylan at all. It’s likely that he’d be recording and releasing new material if he had it, but the cupboards are bare. So, we get “That Old Black Magic,” with all its hotel-bar ambiance. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not going to be on any reasonable person’s “Best of Bob” playlists.
Of course, Bob Dylan being Bob Dylan, he’ll probably release a record of originals at age 77 that addresses his dotage with withering wit, and it will turn out that his Sinatra period was a clearing of the decks that was necessary to get to that place of genius.
Or, maybe he’ll put out a third Sinatra album next year, and then he’ll die not long after. All that anybody knows is that nobody knows — maybe not even Bob Dylan himself — what Bob Dylan will do next. Par for the course.
Artist: Bob Dylan
Album: “Fallen Angels”
Recorded at: Capitol Studios, Los Angeles
Produced by: Jack Frost
Personnel: Bob Dylan (vocals), numerous others
Tony Bennett reviews music for the News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.