Bob Dylan is among the many musical geniuses who love messing with everyone. We know that he, along with Neil Young, Kanye West and the late Lou Reed, could have stuck to what made them beloved artists in the first place, but that could get tiring. In order to remain relevant and interesting, you have to surprise people, which often comes in the form of playing with audience expectations. Sometimes this results in memorable works, like Young’s Americana or West’s recent The Life of Pablo. Other times, as with Reed’s Metallica collaboration Lulu, the results are messier.
Dylan is the master of manipulating his sound to challenge fans and critics’ ideas of who he is as an artist, so much so that I made a list of the different times he pissed people off. Think he’s a folk singer? He’ll go electric. Think he’s a rock and roll singer-songwriter? He’ll go country. Think he’s perfect? He’ll release an album so bad it’ll make you question everything. And so on and so forth. These change-ups may have angered the audiences of the time, but they have resulted in a remarkable career that can’t be narrowed down. Dylan isn’t this, and he isn’t that. He just is.
Last year’s Shadows in the Night was an easy album to be frustrated by. He started this millennium with 2001’s Love and Theft, a legitimate masterwork, and even his weaker studio albums from recent years, like Together Through Life and Tempest, have been solid. Few artists from his era have continued writing noteworthy songs into the 21st century, so it’s disappointing that he turned to singing standards. But then again, to be disappointed by Dylan is to fall into a foreseen trap.
Now he’s released a sequel to Shadows in the Night, a move that feels akin to Reed’s teasing of a Lulu sequel before his death. But in that instance, Lulu was at least eccentric enough that a follow-up would have been intriguing. Shadows in the Night was merely a tribute to Sinatra’s melancholy concept albums that proved how essential Sinatra’s vocals were to those recordings. A sequel doesn’t promise much excitement.
Nevertheless, Fallen Angels is a better album than Shadows in the Night for several reasons, notably track lengths. Nearly thirty seconds shorter on average, the songs on Fallen Angels don’t overstay their welcome as often as Shadows in the Night cuts like “I’m a Fool to Want You” did. The longer tracks are also more tolerable, which is largely due to the arrangements. The genre touches that were handled more subtly on the previous album are brought to the forefront here, making the recordings more significant and distinctive, even if none of them top Sinatra’s. It opens with a version of “Young at Heart” that, with its twangy guitar and Dylan’s mournful vocals, would have fit in on Willie Nelson’s December Day. This is easily the standout track, but other highlights include a bluesy “Melancholy Mood,” a shuffle beat-driven “That Old Black Magic” and a western swing take on “Skylark.”
“Skylark” is also notable for being the only song on either albums that was never recorded by Sinatra. This may not seem like a big deal—it is just one song, after all—but it represents a conceptual break that gives the album a looser feel. For example, Shadows in the Night covered four songs from Sinatra’s 1957 album Where Are You? Comparatively, Fallen Angels covers one, and this ensures that the album is less tied down by a specific tone. Instead of being a tribute to a specific type of Sinatra album, this is simply Dylan’s Great American Songbook album, and it isn’t bad at all.
I truly hope that Dylan releases another album of originals. He has proven during the last 15 years that he can still write as well as ever, and it’s very likely that he has more great albums left in him. But Fallen Angels shows how terrific a recording artist he is, with or without his own lyrics backing him up.