Bob Dylan takes another stroll down Tin Pan Alley on ‘Fallen Angels’
With Fallen Angels (Columbia), Bob Dylan makes at least one thing clear: It seems we got him all wrong, again.
Just when it appears possible to fix some aspect of Dylan’s art and music, he does something that makes any attempt to pin him down look misguided.
Take Dylan’s relationship with the Tin Pan Alley songwriting factory that dominated the worlds of popular music, from jazz to Broadway, in the first half of the 20th century. The songs created by professional lyricists and melody-makers in New York City high rises provided the musical foundation for countless legendary singers – Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald. But Dylan and his generation cast themselves as rebels whose heroes forged their voices and songs on plantations and in cotton fields.
In the introduction to one of his earliest songs, “Bob Dylan’s Blues,” Dylan did his part to kill the songwriting establishment. “This is unlike all the rest of the songs comin’ out of uptown New York – a Tin Pan Alley thing,” he drawled. “This one wasn’t written up there ... this was written down in the United States.”
Notice the conscious separation of high and low, “up there” vs. “down in,” as if to emphasize that Dylan didn’t want any part of that sort of for-hire, upscale professionalism. That’s been the party line espoused by Dylan disciples ever since. In a 2010 interview with Atlantic, Dylan biographer Sean Wilentz said the singer “almost single-handedly kill(ed) Tin Pan Alley.”
So how to explain Fallen Angels, Dylan’s second album of Tin Pan Alley standards in two years?
Over the decades, Dylan dropped hints that he admired the classic Tin Pan Alley songs more than he first suggested. Tunes written by the likes of Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen and others were part of his childhood growing up in northern Minnesota. His 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One noted that in Arlen’s compositions, “I could hear rural blues and folk music. There was an emotional kinship there.”
Dylan originals such as “Moonlight” and “Beyond the Horizon” on recent albums underlined that feeling. And with Shadows in the Night in 2015 and now Fallen Angels, Dylan is presenting his late-career interpretation of the Tin Pan Alley songbook, bringing the singer full circle back to his childhood days listening to his parents’ music.
What makes these projects more than just nostalgia pieces is the approach. Most “great songbook” albums by contemporary artists such as Rod Stewart, Annie Lennox and Paul McCartney favor lush orchestrations that evoke the original interpreters. Dylan goes for more of a sparse, Western plains approach. His are atmospheric, country-tinged interpretations, and they prompt a fresh appreciation of the craft underlying these tunes.
Dylan’s craggy voice is where things get problematic for many listeners. But he’s smart in his choice of material – he gravitates toward wistful melancholy – and in the intimacy of the arrangements, which allow him to sing without excessive strain. The cracks in his conversational delivery suggest the rural blues he heard in Arlen’s songs when he was a kid. Pedal steel, fiddle and brushes add to the sense that the musicians are gathered round a campfire beneath an endless sky rather than huddled in a Hollywood recording studio.
As mood pieces go, Fallen Angels is a notch or two below its predecessor. Dylan glides through most of these dozen songs without reaching the devastating emotional connection afforded by “Autumn Leaves” and “That Lucky Old Sun” from Shadows in the Night. Instead, the peaks on his latest album arrive with his languid minorkey reading of “On a Little Street in Singapore” and the Louis Prima-like Latin tinge he brings to “That Old Black Magic.”
“Lovin’ the spin I’m in,” he sings, sounding anything but like the guy who supposedly left Tin Pan Alley for dead.
BOB DYLAN still proves he’s still the king of cover songs on his latest album ‘Fallen Angels’.