Some Songs Considered #056: Bob Dylan’s forgiven Fallen Angels
Welcome to Some Songs Considered, a column that recognizes they can’t all be zingers and truly appreciates the ones that are.
Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels
This week we’re talking about Bob Dylan. Both because his 75th birthday is next week and the man deserves some credit for still touring and recording music at that age, but also because he has a new album out.
This new album, Fallen Angels, is a series of classic American Standards covers…
I wouldn’t call this essential or even pleasant listening, but a questionable new Dylan release always begs his die hard devotees (read: me) to search for some meaning or to at least find a place for this new piece in the decades-long puzzle of Dylan’s career.
History will label Dylan somewhere between Messiah and rambling influencer, but a true Dylan fan will always see him first and foremost as a confidant. For all his artistic decisions, failed and triumphant, the sheer number and variety of projects the man pulls off every decade is cause for god-like status.
But for those times when we can’t seem to reconcile his brilliance with his glibness, we have to remember that he’s just a talented guy who’s been trying to tell us what’s on his mind since 1950.
In folk music, the artist is blessed and cursed with having their persona front and center and tied to every verse. Even when a folk artist adopts a character or persona, the audience can’t help but assume the thoughts and actions in these lyric-heavy, narrative songs are reflections of the artist’s life. And after 37 albums and multiple reinventions, the character of Bob Dylan has become just as important to us as the music. With that much content to work with, listeners have analysed, criticized and read between the lines with as mush devotion as a Biblical scholar – or at least a Stanley Kubrick fan.
But is there a larger, ultimate purpose in everything he does?
Of course not. He’s not Jesus. He’s a kid from Minnesota with a drive for progressive creativity no matter what musical phase, alter ego, or religious transformation he’s going through.
I say this the week after not the first, but the second Dylan release of Great American Songbook and Sinatra covers – Fallen Angels featuring “It Had to Be You,” “All the Way,” and other faithful renditions of songs once loved for the heart-melting croon of their original performers.
Bob Dylan, however, does not have the capacity for a heart-melting croon.
He didn’t in 1969 and he certainty doesn’t in 2016.
Not only that, but the man who once pierced the consciousness of America with songs like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Hurricane” has chosen to rehash songs with very little contemporary resonance – both lyrically and sonically:
So why do it? Why release such an unoriginal and ill conceived record? Why not find something more benefiting his abilities after a 57 year career? And why not release something more individually poignant or monumental on the eve of his 75th birthday? The answer is, there is no answer.
There is, as there has always been, only Dylan.
Dylan’s career is not made to fit into our fast release, hot take-hungry media culture. For Dylan fans, its par for the course to experience moments, maybe eras, of brilliance alongside periodic confusion and disappointment. Artistic inconsistency is not unique to Dylan, but it is particularly affecting coming from an artist whose greatest quality is biting, truth-soaked lyricism pointed right at the listener.
He is – or at least he’s supposed to be – the answer to those of us looking for a withholding but all-knowing mentor to slap them in the face and say “get you shit together.”
Saddled with student debt and self-righteousness, what millennial doesn’t need to hear caustic verses like “you’ve gone to the finest schools, alright Miss Lonely/But you know you only used to get juiced in it/Nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street/And now you’re gonna have to get used to it”?
But for every career masterpiece, every culture-defining track, there are a series of decisions that throw the authenticity of his whole career into jeopardy (the connection listeners feel after finding that Dylan song that speaks directly to them and their insecurities only makes it harder to watch him perform it in a Pepsi commercial during the next Super Bowl). For every reinvigorating late-career triumph, there is an album or two that he just phoned in.
1988’s Down In the Groove, for instance, is a head-scratching mess and wastefully uses guests such as the Grateful Dead and Brooklyn rappers Full Force. And yet, a year later, Dylan released Oh Mercy; a powerful work, full of Dylan’s thought-provoking lyricism with a refreshingly vast, swelling production quality.
If, like me, you are drawn to Dylan for the clarity of his words and the relatable bluntness of his music, then the occasional disappointment only makes him that much more accessible.
Like a vibrant friend you’ve known and loved for decades, you’ll find that some of his decisions are resonant and others inexplicable. Remember that time your friend got irresponsibly drunk and you had to carry them home? Well Bob Dylan starred in a questionable Victoria Secret commercial in 2004. Remember the time the same friend decided to quit their job and take up beading? Well Bob Dylan released an album of traditional Christmas covers in 2009.
As a Bob Dylan fan, sometimes all one can say is, “I don’t know why you’re doing this, but I support you because I love you.”
And like any lifetime pal, Dylan will always, eventually, remind you why you love him in the first place.
After that icky lingerie ad, he released Modern Times, a fully realized album of folk, blues and rock with a sense of humor sharp enough to give Alisha Keys a shout out in the first verse.
Shortly after that Christmas album, Dylan restored faith in is his artistry by curating Drawn Blank, an exhibit of his prolific and emotive watercolor paintings at the National Gallery in Denmark.
Dylan has been on our bad side many times throughout his career, yet history has taught us that there is always one more trick up this guy’s sleeve.
This latest venture, Fallen Angels is disappointing as a whole, but give “Old Black Magic” a listen and tell me there isn’t a spry energy; refreshing, flirty and reminiscent of a younger version of himself…
Dylan is a legend with many monumental achievements and head-spinning surprises in his bag, but unlike most legends, he isn’t done yet.
Random Tracks from Random Nerds:
Anderson Paak – “The Bird” and “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance”
– Bryce Rudow (@BryceTRudow)
On April 30, Anderson Paak tore through an eclectic, electric set at the Broccoli City Festival in my hometown of Washington DC.
Photographer extraordinaire Wolu Moore was there to capture the moment…
The crowd, however, was not…
Maybe it was the gloomy weather. Maybe it was the early set time. Maybe it was DC’s newfound love of being able to basically smoke weed in public. Maybe everybody really was just there to see Future.
Regardless, I blame myself for not educating my city better on this once-in-a-generation kind of an artist.
Listen to this song, realize that thousands of people didn’t dance when it was played live in front of them, and ponder this one-hand-clapping thought…
Could Prince have become Prince in 2016?
Skepta f. Pharrell – “Numbers”
– Julian Kimble (@JRK316)
I took my sweet-ass time listening to Skepta’s new album, Konnichiwa; blame the insufferable fascination with the grime sound for the delay. It was worth the wait: the funky crawl of the Pharrell-assisted “Numbers” has been in rotation all week long, evoking visions of trunks rattling across Tottenham through August.
As a matter of fact, it’s time for a vacation. London’s calling.
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