We shouldn’t need proof that Bob Dylan – still and always – does what he wants. But a second volume of pre-rock’n’roll Frank Sinatra covers arriving only a year after he first soft-dazzled and stupefied with that very concept should be all the proof that’s currently required. Remember, for the last quarter-century now Dylan has been digging back into the first half of the previous century for his musical inspiration. He’s adding to the canon in a way that suits and fits, and just as I did not expect to need nor love Shadows In The Night I figured that Fallen Angels could just slip by and I wouldn’t need to notice it.
But it’s another head-scratchingly good set. In fact I’m more taken with it than the first volume – where that was all smoky corridors and candlelit rooms this one has a little more daylight bounce to its stride; if only a smidge.
Take away the fact that it’s Bob. And that it’s Bob singing Frank. Enjoy it for Bob’s production – as Jack Frost, of course. Enjoy it for Charlie Sexton’s creamy guitar lines, for the wonderful weepiness of Donnie Herron’s steel and Tony Garnier’s gorgeous, melodic bass-lines. Dylan’s at the helm of a brilliantly intuitive slow-burn backing unit here.
He’s in fine voice too, the phrasing, the tone, the timbre – not for him to just circle around old standards. He haunts them, imbibes them, revives them, imbues them – we drink in his versions as if the first batch, an intoxicating brew.
And yet, sure, you can draw your line in the sand. You can decide that you’re happy with Sinatra’s versions. You’re happy hearing actually anyone else but Bob sing the songs of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer and Sammy Cahn and Hoagy Carmichael – and hey, I wouldn’t begrudge you for thinking that. Wouldn’t judge you. Fair enough. Ain’t nobody gonna beat Frank. But you have to also know that Bob knows that. Knows it at least as well as anyone.
There’s something very powerful to me about the world’s greatest post-war songwriter deciding, on one level at least, that there are simply enough songs in the world. Not only that but that there’s life in them there hills when it comes to climbing the mountain of standards.
You might think you never need to hear another version of It Had To Be You and I’m not trying to convince you otherwise but Dylan’s world-weariness and the elegant mope of his band’s head-bowed guitars and soft sweep of the drummer’s brushes ushers in one of the very best versions of a song I was sure I’d heard enough.
This time around – surely a little mischievous from Dylan informs it – there’s a cover of Skylark, a song you won’t find in Sinatra’s catalogue. That alone is the point of difference of Angels over Shadows. I like to think Dylan sees that as a real kick in the head. His great lark.
He’s done more for music than anyone – there are terrible buskers because of Dylan and the very best instrumentalists because of him. He set the standard for lyric writing. And since the early 1990s he’s continuing to prove himself as one of the very best song stylists, a lovely way to slide left from the pressure of being the world’s greatest living songwriter. We now don’t expect him to write another classic he can just front up and do what he likes. Which of course is all he’s ever done.
I don’t want a third volume – but I say that knowing that if he does more in this vein I’ll of course give it a listen. And Dylan could care less who does or doesn’t. I admire him so much for that. He is one of the original zero-fucks heroes. And there aren’t many. It’s a lot harder than it seems to shroud yourself in nonchalance.
I’m fond of Dylan singing That Old Black Magic and Come Rain or Come Shine here. In the context of who he is now and what he represents they’re as good as anything he’s ever done. And to hear someone of his stature still this enthralled by music is wonderful too.