Nobody ever expected Bob Dylan to release an album of old standards popularized by Frank Sinatra. Even as he teased last year’s Shadows in the Night with lead single “Full Moon and Empty Arms”, the notion still seemed too strange to be true. Never mind that this same artist once turned inward and “plugged in” just as his acoustic strum and nasal register had become emblematic of the ’60s folk movement; quickly fled his bully pulpit and turned recluse a couple years later after having been anointed the voice of his generation; or suddenly became “saved” in the ’80s only to release a series of albums that would’ve made both Jesus and Judas cry out: “Father, forgive him, for he knows not what he does.” Dylan has always been out of step with our expectations, and yet when we first heard him sadly wishing upon the same moon Ol’ Blue Eyes once did, the concept seemed not only unthinkable but utterly doomed to failure. A year later, how things have changed.
Shadows in the Night succeeded because it never settled for being a curated sampler — a gimmicky album that could’ve been dubbed something like Bob Gets Frank. Instead, Dylan crafted a record with themes of pining, loneliness, and love kindled, lost, or enduring that cast long shadows deep into the night. He smoothed out his voice, stripped the arrangements of any excess, and tapped into what makes those sad songs eternal — as relatable to the rejected teen texting in his bedroom as the old man who only has worn photographs to remind him of a love that’s faded. Now, a year later, those shadows have lifted, and Fallen Angels finds Dylan emerging from the gloomy stillness of winter into the relatively lighter air of springtime.
Dylan doesn’t waste a single note before differentiating the vibe of this record. “Fairy tales can come true,” he promises on familiar opener “Young at Heart” (a brochure on the perks of remaining “Forever Young”). His voice splits the difference between Sinatra’s olive oil delivery and Jimmy Durante’s animated playfulness. Clearly, if Shadows in the Night is Dylan’s Only the Lonely, then Fallen Angels acts as his Come Fly with Me — or as close as he can muster. Since we last left him, his protagonists have gone from empty-armed (“Full Moon and Empty Arms”) to full-sailed (“On a Little Street in Singapore”); from melancholy resignation (“The Night We Called It a Day”) to foolish hopefulness (“Maybe You’ll Be There”); and from being cursed to share a woman’s affections (“I’m a Fool to Want You”) to settling for nothing less than “All or Nothing at All” when it comes to love. A changing of seasons has surely thawed more than just the ground on Fallen Angels — hearts are on the mend and rebound.
While Dylan’s once-broken protagonists have emerged from their quiet brooding and put themselves out into the world again, they aren’t doing so naively expecting love to be perfect. The best moments on Fallen Angels capture this ambivalence. On “Maybe You’ll Be There”, a man takes the first steps at moving on from heartbreak but can’t stop himself from looking back in the hopes that she might return. “Maybe I’ll win, and maybe I’ll lose/ And maybe I’m in for crying the blues,” Dylan wades into a relationship atop flickering pedal steel and soft-brushed percussion on “Nevertheless”. The odds might be less than ideal and the risks terrifying, but as he resolves: “Nevertheless, I’m in love with you.” Still, maybe love is out of all their hands. On “It Had to Be You”, Dylan points the finger squarely at Fate when it comes to finding that one person out there who “could make me be true, could make me be blue.” Maybe the five playing cards on the album’s cover offer as good a metaphor as any — not all of the men in these songs have winning hands, but you also can’t win if you fold or, worse yet, never sit down at the table. They’re at least in the game again.
If there’s a recurring flaw in Dylan’s recent albums (Shadows in the Night excluded), it would be the editing. “All the Way” should be this record’s absolute stunner, but Dylan ignores a perfect conclusion, opting to extend the song, meddle with its momentum, and painfully strain his voice on the final lines. It’s a gorgeous rendition sabotaged by nearly two minutes of excess. Contrarily, closing number “Come Rain or Come Shine” cuts off just as Dylan has a chance to end emphatically in the way “That Lucky Old Sun” concludes Shadows. Dylan may naturally be better at the brooding that Shadows required, but these types of decisions equally prevent Fallen Angels from matching its predecessor.
One of Dylan’s more famous lyrics cautions that “he not busy being born is busy dying.” Ironically, it’s often been easy to mistake Dylan’s rebirths for death knells. His last pair of covers albums — 1992’s Good as I Been to You and 1993’s World Gone Wrong — which once felt like a creative white flag being raised, now can be viewed as the first hints of Dylan’s late ’90s reemergence. Are Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels a final act, or are they merely the preamble to the next encore? At nearly 75 years old, Bob Dylan still has us guessing.
Essential Tracks: “It Had to Be You”, “Nevertheless”, and “All the Way”