Bob Dylan Sings From The Autumn Of His Life
By Michael Goldberg.
Part Two of his Sinatra sessions is heavy with meaning, and a whole lot of fun too!
A fallen angel is an angel who has sinned and been cast out of heaven.
“Everybody knows that torch singers are ‘fallen angels,’…” – Torch Singing: Performing Resistance and Desire from Billie Holiday to Edith Piaf by Stacy Holman Jones
Bob Dylan showed up at Daniel Lanois’ house in Los Angeles sometime in the later half of 2014 with recordings of 21 songs he’d made at the beginning of the year at the legendary Capitol Records Studio B in Hollywood where Frank Sinatra, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, the Beach Boys and many others once made records.
“He [Dylan] said, ‘Let me tell you, Dan: If you have the time, can I tell you how I grew up?’ So we sat in the kitchen. I hadn’t heard a note.
“He spoke for an hour and a half on how, as a kid, you couldn’t even get pictures of anybody [the artists],” Lanois, who produced two Dylan albums, 1989’s Oh Mercy, and 1997’s Time Out Of Mind, recounted to a reporter from the Vancouver Sun in February of 2015. “You might get a record but you didn’t know what they [the artist] looked like. So there was a lot of mystery associated with the work at the time. As far as hearing live music, he only heard a couple of shows a year, like the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra might come through.
“But the music he did hear really touched him and he felt that a lot of that music was written not only by great professional songwriters at the time, but a lot of it was written from the heart, from the wartime, and people just pining for a lover. He felt there was a lot of spirit in that music. He felt there was a kind of beauty, a sacred ground for him.
“After having said all that, we then listened to the music and I felt everything that he talked about. For one of America’s great writers to say, ‘I’m not gonna write a song. I’m gonna pay homage to what shook me as a young boy,’ I thought was very graceful and dignified.”
Ten of the recordings Lanois heard that day were released on Dylan’s wonderful 2015 album, Shadows in the Night. What happened to the others is something of a mystery.
In October of 2014, in a post at the Dylan fan site Expecting Rain, someone calling themself Geezerfreak posted a list of 22 songs he said Dylan and his band had recorded with engineer Al Schmitt during the Shadows in the Night sessions. In fact, 23 songs were recorded, according to Schmitt.
Another ten songs in that list are on Dylan’s new album, Fallen Angels. However, according to Dylan’s spokesperson, all the recordings on the new album were made in 2015, not 2014. So Dylan must have been unhappy with something about those original recordings and gone back into the studio to re-record them, along with two others. Perhaps the 2014 recordings that remain unreleased will someday show up on a Dylan Bootleg Series release.
Comparing the sound of the two albums, there are differences that seem to confirm that a year or so passed between the recording of the two albums. Overall, Dylan’s voice is further back in the mix on Shadows in the Night. There’s also something different about the way the instruments were recorded, and Donnie Herron’s steel guitar dominates in a way that for the most part it doesn’t this time around with the exception of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” which opens with a truly amazing steel guitar intro. I mean there are times on Shadows in the Night where Herron sounds like a one man orchestra.
On Fallen Angels, Dylan’s voice sounds more upfront and naked, as do the instruments, and instruments other than steel guitar have more prominent roles in the mix – check the bass and rhythm guitar on “All or Nothing at All,” and the spectacular minute-and-eight-second electric guitar solo that opens “Melancholy Mood,” and then returns, upping the ante for the final 24 seconds of the song. There’s an elusive film noir quality I hear on Shadows in the Night (check out “I’m a Fool to Want You” on good headphones to see what I mean) missing from the new one. And that’s not a bad thing. To be clear, the sound of the new album is just as arresting as its predecessor.
On both albums Dylan is deeply in sync with the material. He is totally convincing singing these songs, which were mostly written in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s by such writers as Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, Carolyn Leigh and Sammy Gallop (who, by the way, was born, like Dylan in Duluth, Minnesota). It feels as if Dylan’s been inside these songs, experiencing the stories they tell during his many years on this planet, but also having heard them since he was a kid.
The new album complements what I now think of as a conceptual two-CD set. Like its predecessor, its title, in addition to describing torch singers, comes from a film noir movie produced in the mid-1940s; in the case of Fallen Angles, the film from which the title is borrowed is Otto Preminger’s 1945 “Fallen Angel” (although Dylan could also be referencing Wong Kar-Wai’s 1998 noir thriller, “Fallen Angels”).
The songs on Fallen Angels compliment, enhance and develop themes from Shadows in the Night. Both albums feature songs of regret, of longing for a love that has slipped away. On the new one, Dylan brings deep feeling to an outstanding performance of “Maybe You’ll Be There,” and his “Melancholy Mood” is heartbreaking.
There are other themes explored on Fallen Angles. The album opener, “Young at Heart,” is not only about state-of-mind trumping one’s literal age, but about remaining open to new experiences (“For it’s hard, you will find/ To be narrow of mind if you’re young at heart”). For Dylan, who turns 75 on May 24, this song sounds like a statement of intent. Certainly, to constantly tour the world as Dylan does, it would be easier if one were young at heart.
Most of the songs, as to be expected given their source, are love songs. Serious love songs. Dylan has chosen songs with lyrics that express just how deep love can be. In “All of Me,” he sings:
Taller than the tallest tree is
That’s how it’s got to feel
Deeper than the deep blue sea is
That’s how deep it goes, if it’s real.
And in “All or Nothing At All” he sings of how he’s not interested in a superficial relationship.
All or nothing at all
Half a love, never appealed to me
If your heart, never could yield to me
Then I’d rather have nothing at all.
There is poetry in the songs Dylan has chosen. There are even lines I could imagine Dylan writing. From “Skylark”: “Crazy as a loon, sad as a Gypsy, serenading the moon.” Or from “On a Little Street in Singapore”: “We’d meet beside a lotus-covered door, A veil of moonlight on her lonely face… My sails tonight are filled with perfume of Shalimar/ And temple bells will guide me to the shore.” Or this from “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”: “Now in a cottage of lilacs and laughter…”
Dylan’s current touring band – Charlie Sexton (guitar), Stu Kimball (guitar), Tony Garnier (bass), George Recile (drums) and Donnie Herron (steel guitar and viola) – played on both albums, and it is truly exceptional. These guys are the real thing, both onstage and in the studio.
As with Shadows in the Night, Dylan’s band, a kind of country-western combo, takes songs that traditionally were performed by big bands including Harry James and his Orchestra and Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra, and offer a stripped down approach. The emphasis is on showcasing Dylan’s vocals.
While Dylan might have been able to pull off an album of songs associated with Sinatra in his youth – and he has said he’s been wanting to make an album of standards since hearing Willie Nelson’s Stardust back in 1978 (when he was 37) – I’m glad he waited. His voice, which as on Shadows in the Night sounds fantastic, better than it has in years, is well suited to these tales of all-consuming love and regret.
While the idea of “older but wiser” is a cliché, Dylan’s weathered voice telegraphs many decades on the front lines of love and romance, and confirms the heartache in these songs, while still bringing an authenticity to the hope – expressed in “Maybe You’ll Be There” and “On a Little Street in Singapore” – that the character singing those songs will, once again, experience the kind of real love he’s lost. There’s another side of Dylan here as well – you can see him smiling as he sings “Young at Heart,” and there’s spirited energy in his swinging “That Old Black Magic.”
The beginning of “Skylark” (the only song here that Sinatra didn’t record) recalls the upbeat musical feel of New Morning, particularly “If Dogs Run Free,” and Dylan quotes briefly from the melody of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” when he sings the third line of the second verse in “Young at Heart”: “And life gets more exciting with each passing day.” In fact that song could be a bit of an answer to that famous Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles song, in which the young singer imagines not doing much of anything as half of an old married couple. The melancholy mood of one of my favorites, “Maybe You’ll Be There,” is established by James Harper’s horn arrangements and Danny Herron’s viola, which bring to mind Billie Holiday’s moody 1958 album, Lady in Satin.
Unlike Shadows in the Night, there is more variety of mood on Fallen Angels. Throughout “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” which was Sinatra’s first hit as the singer in Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra, Dylan sounds happy and good-natured, as he does while singing “Nevertheless I’m in Love With You.” There’s regret but not bitterness in “Maybe You’ll Be There” and “Melancholy Mood.” He sounds overcome by the emotions his lover brings up in him when they kiss, or even just when he thinks of her kiss, in “That Old Black Magic.” He ends the album with a low-keyed “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” a song of love and devotion (with the line, “High as a mountain, deep as a river,” which anticipates or perhaps inspired the Phil Spector/Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich song “River Deep – Mountain High”) which features one of the guitarists accompanying Dylan’s vocal with the sweetest of melodies.
Dylan’s two-part conceptual reimagining of 22 songs mostly associated with Frank Sinatra, amazingly perhaps, strikes me as being both as personal and revealing as the numerous albums filled with Dylan originals. Every one of these songs was picked by Dylan; these songs surely have special meaning for him. The two albums that comprise this “two CD set” provide a fascinating look at love, romance, desire and heartbreak. For those of us who obsess over Dylan and every move he makes, there’s plenty here to ponder, and for those fans who simply appreciate the man singing a great song, this one more than meets that criteria as well.