What is there you can possibly write about Bob Dylan that hasn’t been printed a thousand times already? Quite simply, the venerable Minnesotan is one of a tiny handful of artists who can truly be said to have transcended their chosen creative form to become quasi-mythical figures, with a towering body of work that is as familiar as it is incalculably influential.
However, none of that means that Fallen Angels – Dylan’s 37th studio album of his astonishing 55 year career – is a automatically great record. It isn’t. In fact, it’s possible to construct a decent argument that Dylan hasn’t actually made a genuinely great record for 40 years or more, since the momentous Blood On The Tracks back in 1975. Sure, there’s a strong case for Desire, which features some brilliant songs like Hurricane and Sara, but is a little uneven overall, while the world-weary end of the millennium Bob of Time Out Of Mind and Love And Theft has many advocates. Yet if we judge these albums dispassionately, rather than kneeling at the altar of their architect’s former genius when assessing their merits, then perhaps we are being unduly kind to a performer who has been in gentle decline for much of his career.
Fallen Angels continues the theme of last year’s Shadows In The Night, featuring cover versions of classic American songs from the early to middle years of the last century, including compositions by the likes of Sammy Cahn, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. Essentially, it’s the septuagenarian Dylan reconnecting with the music of his youth, and his affection for the material and his ease performing it are evident throughout.
In contrast to the Frank Sinatra classics of Shadows In The Night, with the exception of the When Harry Met Sally popularised It Had To Be You, most of the choices here will be less well known to younger listeners. The tone is relaxed and reflective throughout, with delicately brushed drums, the unhurried twang of a steel guitar and Dylan’s weather-beaten yet warm croon the main ingredients.
The record is at its best when this template is tweaked slightly; for example with the elegant fiddle and brass of Maybe You’ll Be There, or the toe tapping shuffle of That Old Black Magic. But for the most part, Fallen Angels is a comfortable rocking chair of a record, charmingly inoffensive and lovingly crafted, yet with little to get the pulse racing. It’s sometimes hard to believe this is the same guy who gave us A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall and Desolation Row.
The alternative point of view is that it’s better to grow old gracefully than rage against the dying of the light. Yet when one considers the innovative, challenging cover versions that Johnny Cash was recording with Rick Rubin in the twilight of his career, it’s hard not to be disappointed that Dylan isn’t taking just a few more risks. While he performs the songs here with admirable poise, he seems content to just interpret them faithfully rather than bending them to his will and making them his own.
Those who choose to embrace and eulogise anything the great man releases will no doubt laud Fallen Angels as another triumph, but the harsh reality is this is Bob on auto-pilot. It would the understatement of the ages to say he’s earned the right to do as he damn well pleases with what he’s achieved in his life, yet even in the middle of his eighth decade, Mr Zimmerman could be doing better than this.