Thursday, May 26, 2016

Bob Dylan - Fallen Angels (Columbia, 2016)

When people think of Bob Dylan, they inevitably think of the genius songwriter with the unmistakable voice but not so often Dylan as a song interpreter. That is how he got his start, whether it was a teenage greaser playing the new rock ‘n’ roll sounds in the late 1950’s as he readied to leave high school, or as the folk troubadour of the early 1960’s who made the transition from someone who covered folk and blues tunes to someone who wrote them. The interpreter part never left him; in the early 1990’s he released two wonderful low-key albums of traditional folk songs and blues, and that was a springboard to resurgence in his work that would continue into the current century and has included some of his most lauded songwriting and finest performances. This most recent album and the one that preceded it are deftly made albums of American popular songs from the past – the so-called “Great American Songbook.” The songs are short, three minutes or less and many of us know the lyrics by osmosis over the years. But that is where he tricks you in. This is hardly some valedictory lap for an elderly hero, but thoughtful interpretations of these songs that are so common that we hardly truly “hear” them anymore. “Young At Heart” opens the album, taken at a stately pace, with a hint of yearning that is appropriate. But something hits you right away; Dylan is singing very well and clearly, now I have always loved his voice, and feel that it is as distinctive as his songwriting, but this clear distinct cadence, which is not necessarily crooning, is something that he employs all along though the album. I have forgotten where I read it, Greil Marcus perhaps, but when the Nashville Skyline album and “Lay Lady Lay” came out, people were very surprised at the smooth, mannered nature of Dylan’s singing, even though older confederates knew he could do this all along. The band is another thing and it makes this album work as well as it does by having arrangements for a tuned down rock and roll band with subtle brushed percussion, slide and steel guitar rather than strings and this allows the music to convey sentiment without being sentimental. Usually songs like this are crushed beneath a mountain of sappy strings, but here, the music is light on its feet, and has a purpose: this is not the time locked music of “ago” but played in this manner it still has something to say about today. Perhaps Dylan doesn’t have the range necessary to soar on “Skylark” but in a sense he his reclaiming these tunes as folk music, perhaps not like “Froggie Went a Courtin’” or “World Gone Wrong” but by saying these songs are just as much American folklore as anything else. The trickster really comes out at the end, after tipping his hat and giving a little soft shoe on “That Old Black Magic,” he moves into “Come Rain or Come Shine” and makes it into a subtle threat, sharpening the blade with the darkening tone of the music, and his gradually coarsening voice, the stalker tells the victim she has nowhere to hide, ending with a haunting guitar flourish that makes your scalp tingle. It’s the one true masterpiece on the album, and like the best salesmen he uses it to leave you wanting more. Everything culminates here, a song where he can uses all of his forces: the subtle band, voice control and the perfect song to show just how a pop ditty can be turned into a menacing folk parable with just a little twist. This album will undoubtedly be seen as a footnote in Bob Dylan’s discography, but it is definitely worth a spin or two, after all these years the grandmaster still has a trick or two up his sleeve. Also since the album is a sensible LP length it never overstays its welcome. One more thing musicians can learn. Fallen Angels -

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