Dylan plumbs his good ideas fully: consider the mid-’60s rock’n’roll speed-trial of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde, or his fin de siècle roots trilogy Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times. So it’s unsurprising that Fallen Angels continues his Great American Songbook foraging via songs made famous by Frank Sinatra, whose colloquial delivery he evidently learned plenty from, and whose massive catalog includes many of the best songs ever written. It’s really not far removed from where Dylan began, taking America’s temperature through traditional folk and blues.
Fallen Angels isn’t merely overstock from last year’s Shadows In The Night, though Dylan’s approach is similar. His phrasing remains spectacular, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious, and the playing is sublime. The horns are gone – no big loss – and the core band is nicely expanded with session guitar legend Dean Parks (Steely Dan, Dolly Parton, Marvin Gaye). Donny Herron steps up, adding Texas swing and Hawaiian flavors on steel guitar (“Young at Heart,” “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”) and using viola to channel Hot Club jazziness. Songs date mostly to the ’40s and ’50s, with a spotlight on rhyme animal lyricist Johnny Mercer. Two highlights, “Skylark” and “That Old Black Magic,” are both reputed to be about Mercer’s lover, Judy Garland. Are they the “fallen angels” of the title? Is Dylan messaging his own paramour? Is this another trilogy in the making?