The songs collectively known as the Great American Songbook apparently are like those famous potato chips, in that singers who start sampling them quickly discover you can’t stop at just one.
Bob Dylan has joined the long roster of esteemed musicians who have turned initial explorations of the works of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Sammy Cahn, and their peers from the first half of the 20th century into extended visits so they can delve more deeply into some of the most exquisitely crafted songs ever written.
Dylan began in earnest last year with “Shadows in the Night.” Now he’s back with a second deeply felt, imaginatively reworked batch on “Fallen Angels,” set for release on Friday.
To the pigeonhole-minded who shorthanded “Shadows in the Night” as a “covers record,” Dylan smartly responded, “I don’t see myself as covering these songs in any way. They’ve been covered enough. Buried, as a matter of fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day.”
Once again, most — though not all — are closely associated with Frank Sinatra, a singer whose glistening tenor in his prime is, superficially at least, as far from Dylan’s folk-rock rasp as one might imagine.
Yet the connective thread is their shared dive into deep emotion. Dylan is engaging in emotional, more than musical, archaeology, He’s “uncovering” the works of composers and lyricists whose style of writing was virtually shoved aside when he came along a half-century ago with his highly literate, folk-rooted songwriting style — one that was, rightly or wrongly, widely interpreted as largely autobiographical.
A big part of the freshness instilled in such oft-sung and recorded songs as “That Old Black Magic,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “It Had to Be You” comes from the way he and his adroit roots-minded band have arranged them.
Dylan, who also produced under his pseudonym Jack Frost, immediately liberates songs from the big band/big orchestra world from which they emerged, and in which they are most frequently revisited. Donnie Herron’s anguished steel guitar sits front and center in most, Dylan’s closely miked voice otherwise sparsely surrounded by acoustic and electric guitar and bass, with drums tastefully added to a few.
As he did on “Shadows in the Night,” Dylan reaches to the blues at the core of many of these songs. Thus, they elicit the ache of romantic yearning and loss that often gets subsumed by swelling orchestral forces, background choirs or by singers who are more focused on crafting elegant vocals than finding emotional resonance.
Dylan quoted Sam Cooke during his much-cited speech last year when he was being honored as the Recording Academy’s MusiCares Person of the Year. “Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice,” Dylan told the audience. “He said, ‘Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth’.”
That lyric can come across as sweet, even precious, if a singer approaches it glibly, given its lilting melody. But Dylan pulls out the hurt lurking within the “it’s no good” section of that conditional statement.
On albums of his own songs in recent years, Dylan has given free rein to the granite and gravel in his voice, but on “Shadows in the Night” and here, it’s as if he’s on his Sunday best vocal behavior, summoning his clearest tones in service of cherished songs of his musical forbears.
That signature Dylan grit works its way in periodically, usually to shade a word or a phrase, to add visceral dimension to the feeling behind the words.
In the bridge of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” his voice nearly disintegrates when he sweeps up melodically to the end of the line “There were questions in the eyes of the other dancers/As we floated over the floor,” telegraphing the feelings of vulnerability and risk inherent in any budding relationship.
When Rolling Stone magazine ranked Dylan at No. 7 on its 2010 list of the greatest singers of all time, the magazine wrote: “Dylan did with singing what Brando did with acting. He busted through the artifice to get to the art. Both of them tore down the prissy rules laid down by the schoolmarms of their craft, broke through the fourth wall, got in the audience’s face and said, ‘I dare you to think I’m kidding.’”
He’s not kidding on “Fallen Angels,” which makes it all the more rewarding to hear him -- as he is set to turn 75 next week (May 24) -- sing:
If you should survive to one hundred and five
Look at all you’ll derive out of being alive
And here is the best part, you have a head start
If you are among the very young at heart
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