Why Bob Dylan has chosen to release two albums of standards in as many years is a mystery to anyone who’s not Bob Dylan. Shadows in the Night was a pleasant, somewhat light affair, bolstered by the surprise inherent in its concept. The record felt like something of a distraction; a detour before he returned to his typical output, but the release of Fallen Angels throws that out the window. In all fairness, Bob Dylan has contributed enough to the music scene that he can do basically whatever he wants at this point, but that doesn’t make Fallen Angels sound any more vital.
Having collected together twelve American standards (all but one are taken from Frank Sinatra’s songbook), Dylan and his band play them in a languid, jazzy style, that wouldn’t sound out of place in an old-fashioned dive bar. The tempo never speeds beyond a crawl, and the mood is lonesome in the romantic sense, but not lonely or despondent. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an album of covers, but Dylan’s band delivers the songs with such a relaxed style that the tracks seem to blur together. Tracks like Skylark and Polka Dots and Moonbeams come dangerously close to becoming background music.
However, the very slowest tracks actually end up being the strongest, since they highlight Dylan’s voice. Divorced from his own idiosyncratic lyrics, his voice is the defining instrument of the album. It sounds weathered and aged, but expressive. The rough tone of his younger voice has been replaced by a more nasal one, and his lack of concern for hitting notes 100% of the time allows him to emote more than most singers. The longing in his voice on Baby You’ll Be There is palpable, and that same emotionality goes a long way towards rescuing some of the more dull tracks on the album. Even at its slowest and most vacuous, Fallen Angels has one of the most unique and important performers in the world singing, and his voice is more powerful than ever. It’s just a shame Dylan outclasses the material.