Josh Hurst

Month: June, 2016

SO EASY

Or: Hayes Carll gets further along.

lovers and leavers

“Hey-o, love is so easy when you’re moving slow,” Hayes Carll sings on the next-to-last song on Lovers and Leavers. It’s an album that does indeed move slow down an open stretch of highway, a cool night’s journey through sadness and solitude that arrives—at last—at something like dawn: “Let the world worry/ Cause you and me won’t,” that song says, and though there’s no actual crescendo there—only the slightest lilt in Carll’s voice to suggest what a breakthrough it might be—the line lands like liberation, or at the very least like a well-earned vacation. Following a stormy, searching journey through loneliness and loss, Carll’s narrator emerges on the other side—a soul survivor, the Stones might call him. After songs with titles like “Good While It Lasted” and “You Leave Alone”—both of them more or less about what you’d expect them to be about—the song called “Love is So Easy” is totally believable as the first glimmer of daybreak.

The record opens with a song called “Drive,” where out narrator is already on the road again like Jack Kerouac and Willie Nelson; like very truck-driving song you’ve ever heard, from “Willin’” to “Endless Gray Ribbon” to the collected works of Red Simpson. It’s not actually a song about hauling freight, but then again, neither were any of those: It’s a song about a lover who turned out to be a leaver; a song about solitude as something you invite and abide and in the end are haunted by; a song about the other side of freedom. Carll picks the song out on his acoustic guitar, and he has high-and-lonesome support from Dave Piltch’s upright bass and a spare rhythm from drummer Jay Bellerose, perhaps tapping it out with his hands. When Carll sings, he fights the sound of silence: “Further along/ And down the road/ Burning up your life/ Oh, it’s some place else to go/ Just drive, drive, drive.” It’s not a song about a man who’s headed somewhere in particular; it’s about a man who just needs to move. And every exit sign passes like a promise still to keep.

It’s no accident that the record begins with a lonely trip through darkness, with a driver “like a mustang in the mountainstoo wild to settle down.” That’s what the whole record feels like: A midnight cruise down dusty highways and through desert canyons, a cold cup of gas station coffee in the console, cigarettes on the dash. Occasionally an FM radio station flickers with clarity, and the record broadens in jubilant color; mostly, it’s just the driver alone with his thoughts and the rumble of the engine. What he’s thinking about, mostly, is what he’s left behind, though it would be too easy to call this Carll’s Blood on the Tracks: Loneliness is the consequence of loss here but also the wage of his chosen vocation. After “Drive” comes a tune called “Sake of the Song,” where the troubadour’s solitary pursuit of his muse is elevated to a holy, monastic quest—lonely but important, and besides, what else is a singing man to do?

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This is the fifth Hayes Carll album, and it’s a breakthrough—an album of considerable confidence, refinement, and purpose. His last one, KMAG YOYO, was an irresistible jumble of words and ideas, but it wore its madcap sensibilities in its goofy title. There is nothing on the new album that feels like the beer-soaked sing-along “Hard Out Here,” the subterranean homesick ramble of “KMAG YOYO,” or the punchy jokes and backward come-ons of “Another Like You.” Lovers and Leavers is the sound of fevered Technicolor fading back to the soulful precision and clarity of black and white. Produced by Joe Henry—truly, there is no one better at capturing the strange weather of a singer/songwriter in full bloom—the album is spare, lean, focused; the jokes have been whittled away, and what remains is a confessional song cycle where every word and every note feels essential to the story, to how the whole thing unfolds like a novel or an old movie. Henry frames it like he’s Stanley Kubrick or Orson Welles, keeping each shot tight on the narrator, letting the grit in Carll’s voice tell most of the story; occasionally he pans out to allow more action into the frame, and those moments explode with earned joy.

One of them arrives early, in “Sake of the Song,” where Carll’s voice and guitar are framed by piano, organ, upright bass, and the reliable rattle of Bellerose’s percussion. Here Carll narrates the isolated trudge of everyone who’s ever travelled the world peddling songs. The lyric is dense with images and ideas, yet the effect isn’t the sheer force of words, like on KMAG YOYO or for that matter Blonde on Blonde; instead, Carll feverishly draws circles around his muse like he’s Sonny Rollins in mid-trance. Though he references everything from country to grunge, this isn’t another tedious song about the perils of being a working musician. It’s about the purity of creative pursuit, about song as a spiritual quest. The singer sounds haunted by his muse, and the band’s rowdy blues works into a fever pitch that suggests the muse is hard at work, the singer’s pursuit animated by bigger things unseen.

Storm clouds drift across the edges of “Good While it Lasted,” in the form of spare piano and the low rumble of toms; Carll the troubadour is back in the center of the frame, here with a song about how everything changes and things fall apart. The narrator has put away childish thing, but it’s not enough to keep the hellhound off his trail: “I smoked my last cigarette/ I drank my last drop/ Quit doing all the things/ I swore I’d never stop/ I changed my direction/ Sang a different tune/… Things were going good there for a while/ I tried to straighten out the crooked road that I was on/ It was good while it lasted/ But it didn’t last too long.” It’s a reckoning with how things crumble despite our best efforts to hold it all together; there’s a divorce song lurking in here too, perhaps, but it’s really a song about time, and in the end Carll seems to find peace with it: “Nothing lasts forever/ Time knows that it’s true/ Sometimes a little while’s the best that we can do.”

“You Leave Alone” could almost be the flipside of “Drive.” The protagonist here is another travellin’ man, but he sets down his guitar case the second he finds something better: “Oh, the money was good on the road in the springtime/ But one look from that girl and he settled down.” Carll’s guitar line here is like a fraying tightrope, Bellerose’s tapped percussion a swaying big-top beat, the arrangement spare but nevertheless evocative of that place where whimsy is undercut by melancholy—think the E-Street Band on “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.”

Carll sings with a coarse Texas drawl, and tips his hat from time to time at Texas greats like Guy Clark, but in the end this is no more a country album than, well, Old No. 1. These aren’t songs for the honky tonk. They’re songs for the campfire, for the long haul, for the wee small hours. None are as desolate as “The Love That We Need,” a song about love dulled by comfort and complacency. This is what it sounds like when love dies with a whimper; when it just fades away: “You say ‘I love you’/ I say ‘me too’/ We don’t think much about it/ It’s just a thing that we do/ We go out walking/ We don’t talk much/ We lie down together/ But our hearts never touch.”  This is another one of those songs where Henry pans out to capture a fuller vista, this time marked by piano, toms, and maracas; there’s a lushness that makes those lyrics harder, and Carll sings from a place of loneliness that’s well past romance or hope.

When “Love is So Easy” rolls around it’s light as a feather, nimble on its feet. Carll sings it like he hasn’t a care in the world, Pitch’s bass pops in all the right places, and a playful little organ figure from Tyler Chester makes it sound like a C&W equivalent of those earliest sides from Elvis Costello’s Attractions. It’s a song about hiding away in a new romance, a moment of pleasure where eros becomes almost Edenic. It’s a weathered love song about second birth; he doesn’t actually sing about taking his lover through misty gardens all wet with rain, but might as well.

Lovers and Leavers feels like a crossroads. The singer has made it through the night, cut up and bloody but still standing. He’s made his choices, and he’s driven through the solitude to a place where new love awaits—not a promise, but a possibility. Who could ask for more? There are sad songs here yet none of them sound like despair: They are reckonings with loss and slippery second chances. A couple, in particular, feel like compass blades, signposts for the journey. “The Magic Kid” was written for Carll’s son, who dreams of becoming a sleight-of-hand man. Here the drivin’ man, the restless troubadour from earlier in the record sees what it is to put yourself out there, to love fearlessly, to stand in the bewitching weather of your song, your magic: “That’s my kid with the cards/ He’s nine years old/ With a head full of wonder/ And a heart of gold/ And there’s not a trick that he can’t figure out/ And he’s never stopped the show for fear of doubt/ Like the rest of us did.” But the record ends with “Jealous Moon,” far less malevolent than Parker Millsap’s “Jealous Sun.” Here the heavens long for everything that’s painful and beautiful about this world: “It breaks her heart that down below/ Rivers fun, flowers grow/ But she can’t feel them bloom.” When the song plays, there’s nothing to do but surrender to this world as a dark marvel, a rebuke to our solitude. Here then is this troubadour’s gift: His song about his nine-year-old is the one that tells you what you need to know about living fearlessly as a grown-up, and his song about the moon is the one that affirms the beauty and humanity in our world of fracture. And he makes it seem so easy.


Further resources:

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LIKE THE STORIES TOLD OF OLD

Or: Allen Toussaint Plays Folk Songs

american tunes

Fats Waller’s 1934 recording of “Viper’s Drag” is a dazzling feat of economy; a wonder of concision. In a compact two minutes and 47 seconds, Waller twists a roadhouse blues into a vaudevillian shuffle, then snaps it back into its original shape. It’s a peep show, a night at the opera, and a miracle of modern physics, all rendered with just ten fingers and 88 keys. Allen Toussaint’s American Tunes version adds drums, bass, and about half a minute of total runtime. It dispenses with the quiet-to-loud dynamics of the original, replacing it with rock and roll thrills, sultry Nawlins gait, and razor-edged acoustic trio dynamics that recall nothing so much as the kitchen-sink clang and clatter of the classic Thelonious Monk Trio album on Prestige. (Drummer Jay Bellerose, with his shake rattle and roll, mines his kit for sound effects and swing just as surely as Roach and Blakey did; Dave Piltch, meanwhile, is frankly a better bass player than most of the ones Monk worked with.) Toussaint’s the anchor and the voice, even though he never opens his mouth: His piano has only ever seemed like a conduit for his easygoing humanity, and even when he’s running the board in ruthless imitation of his stride piano heroes his music can only be described as gentle, unfussed over, charming. He’s a natural, and he opens up “Viper’s Drag” like God rending the heavens, humor and blues, swing and surrealism pouring out of it. It, too, feels like a song that suspends everything we thought we knew of time and space and gravity: Toussaint’s trio stretches the song farther than you’d think it might go, ringing every bit of Waller’s cartooniness out of it and transforming it into a symphony in miniature.

This, basically, is what Toussaint does with the American songbook, what he’s done now over the course of two largely instrumental, Joe Henry-produced albums. The Bright Mississippi, released in 2009, was the full flowering of his jazz dream, even if it hardly played like a straight jazz record. Toussaint and his band played songs rooted in a specific piece of real estate—classics by Monk and Ellington, Django and Jelly Roll—that evoked the landscapes of Allen Toussaint’s New Orleans while conjuring the ghosts, the real and imagined spiritual and cultural geography of the place that lurked just below the surface. The album felt classical in its structure, even when the band kicked up some dirt, which it did plenty; its clean lines weren’t enough to contain its sense of the mystic, which boiled over in the airy, weightless innuendos of Toussaint’s “St. James Infirmary.” The record’s strange and bewitching magic is still unparalleled, and seems to stem from Toussaint’s treatment of those songs as pieces of folklore—maps and legends, yarns and tall tales passed down from mother to daughter and father to son, stories and rambles in which the virtue wasn’t in any punchline so much as in how every raconteur told them a bit differently. Toussaint told them better than most, and in a way that only he ever could: Nowhere else does New Orleans jazz move so gaily to the simmering groove of elegant R&B.

American Tunes is a more diverse and inclusive album. It’s more eclectic in its source material, its geographic reach, and in the forms it represents. Toussaint is heard here in solo piano, acoustic trio, quintet, and even vocal presentations, each one a tradition with its own implications and baggage, each one engaged and remade in Toussaint’s own image. So are the compositions he plays, which include three Ellington cuts, some Professor Longhair staples, a bit of Earl “Fatha” Hines, the Waller tune, one from Paul Simon, and even a couple of cuts from Toussaint’s own pen, casually assertive of his own place among these assembled luminaries. (It’s worth noting that a duo performance of “Moon River,” featuring Toussaint playing with Bill Frisell, is available only as a “bonus” cut on the LP version, but adds so much depth and context to the record and is a gem in its own right, a sweet and soulful communion that could have fit the classic Bill Evans/ Jim Hall set Undercurrent.)  True to what Jelly Roll used to say about jazz music, American Tunes feels awash with ideas yet it’s too rough and ragged to ever feel cerebral. Its pleasures aren’t brainy; they’re tactile, kinetic.

Where The Bright Mississippi felt clean and purposeful, American Tunes is more of a patchwork mosaic. Recorded in a couple of different sessions—the solo piano stuff was made at Toussaint’s home studio, some full-band arrangements many months later in Los Angeles—the record is winsomely ramshackle. The songs gain power by their intermingling, and the sequencing ensures some thrilling jukebox transitions: Listen to how the bawdy blues “Rocks in My Bed” melts into the opulence of “Danza, op. 33,” how the delicate glide of “Waltz for Debbie” is stopped in its tracks by the barrelhouse pianism of “Big Chief,” how a dreamy remake of “Southern Nights” answers the white-hot intensity of “Come Sunday” with three minutes of Sabbath rest. The cumulative effect of the record is impressionistic: Each song feels like its own stark color, and the big picture is in how they all swirl together.

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Of course the reason to hear this record—the thing that makes it essential to anyone who cares about the rich tapestry of American song—isn’t how deep and wide Henry and Toussaint go in sourcing this material, but rather how completely Toussaint can bend it to his will. This is most evident on the solo piano numbers, the ones that really seem to play fast and loose with motion and space, with light and kinetics. His skill as an interpreter is informed by his craft as a songwriter: He knows how a tune works, how to unravel it without losing sight of its central thread. His take on “Big Chief” is a two-minute concerto that comes barreling out of the gate: He pulls the melody through brawny blues, front-parlor elegance, and then a haunted dream sequence. It ends where it begins, and he bangs on the keys a few times as punctuation. He takes the stride piano prowl out of “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and reveals a melody of striking lyrical beauty; it feels like the song you play as the last bits of confetti fall, and your heart quiets in peaceful anticipation of Ash Wednesday’s rest. One of the set’s two original numbers, “Delores’ Boyfriend,” captures the quiet beauty of an evening amble, the dignity of taking a stroll to no where in particular. Its chief pleasure is in how it builds a full head of steam, then simmers back down again.

The trio songs—Toussaint recording with Bellerose and Piltch—may be the heart of the record. There is “Viper’s Drag,” of course, another great showcase for Toussaint’s songwriter’s ear: He doesn’t refashion the tune so much as sketch out all of its rooms, revealing them to be more spacious than Waller’s madcap performance ever suggested. It’s a true dialogue, in particular with Bellerose, who provides the locomotive beat while Toussaint scats across the tracks. The song’s earthiness masks its elegance; it sounds so much like a burlesque that you almost don’t notice it’s really a pocket symphony, played with just three instruments. “Waltz for Debbie,” meanwhile, conjures all the sweet romance and delicate trio action of Bill Evans’ Village Vanguard band—Piltch’s upright bass answers Toussaint’s piano lines, Bellerose adds sublime cymbal dissolves—in such a way that you could almost miss how completely Toussaint overhauls the tune: Note that it never actually shifts into waltz time. “Confessin’ (That I Love You)” traces Pops’ on-the-melody crowd-pleasing through the carefree stroll of Mingus’ “My Jelly Roll Stroll.” All three of those cats knew that the calling card of New Orleans music is how it’s unanswerable to anyone else’s timetable, how it moves freely without every working up a sweat. When the song breaks down into three-way conversation, it reveals what’s best about jazz as a form: How it’s a music of singular purpose but a multitude of individual voices.

Van Dyke Parks shows up a couple of times on the record, pushing the record into still further formal diversity, adding critical squares to its patchwork mosaic. He and Toussaint turn Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Danza, op. 33” into a hot summer night’s dream, Parks’ orchestration and Bellerose’s swirl of cymbals soundtracking stars appearing on by one in the pitch black; it fades away, and is answered by the sly come-ons of “Hey Little Girl,” another great juxtaposition of the record’s sophistication and its sensuality. The counterpart to “Danza” is a two-piano take on “Southern Nights,” which Glen Campbell turned into a country song but Toussaint himself recorded as a good-natured trip. Here the drugginess is dropped for a childhood rhapsody, a summertime reverie. These songs aren’t larks or distractions: As with so many of these songs, they feel modest in their intentions yet crucial to the fabric of the record.

Three Duke Ellington numbers are here, too, and they push the record’s marriage of earthiness and elegance in new directions. “Rocks in My Bed” is what Toussaint’s old pal Lowell George might have called an eloquent profanity, a trashy little backwater blues that’s gussied up for a night on the town. Rhiannon Giddens is on hand to deliver the lyric as a psalm of lamentation, and she sings it like a jilted lover who’s just been dealt one indignation too many. Toussaint, who spent so much of his career in a supporting role, does some of his most spirited and adventurous playing when he’s got a vocalist to take the spotlight, and here he adds all the right set dressing: Blues, swing, and cheerful humor. Bellerose keeps his tambourine shaking, but it’s his kickdrum and rimshots that make the song a banger. The showstopper for Giddens is “Come Sunday.” She steps into the Mahalia Jackson role here, and her precision and formal control have never been more valuable. It’s another song of ascent, a prayer lit up by fire and tribulation; she’s looking for the promised land, and she makes every word land. Duke wrote the song as a spiritual but also a kind of a séance, and here there are several voices called and raised—voices from church songs, slave songs, work songs, freedom songs. It all points to jazz, and Charles Lloyd sends up a sublime sax solo as commiseration and benediction. The song feels like a holy moment where ash and clay are kissed by heaven, though its place on the album could just as easily been occupied by “Freedom for the Stallion,” Toussaint’s own spiritual sequel. “Lotus Blossom” may be the key to this whole thing, a song of such aching, impressionistic beauty that you could almost believe Toussaint wrote it himself. It’s ravishing, and toward the end Frisell offers a direct statement of the melody while Toussaint plucks out a gentle lullaby.

American Tunes is a much-delayed follow-up to The Bright Mississippi; Henry pursued it for years; the sessions finally happened, and days later Toussaint was gone. The burden of the album is that it must stand now as his epitaph and the capstone of his legacy; the glory of it is that it was never intended as such and never sounds like it. Too teeming with life for it to ever sound morbid or self-consciously grave—too awash in good humor, cheerful camaraderie, and sensual pleasure—Toussaint plays the whole record with a kind of stately leisure that suggests he has all the time in the world.  And in that sense, perhaps it is a fitting final chapter—an album that reveals Toussaint as a prism through which so many stripes of American song must pass; as a performer whose softspoken and open-hearted humanity cannot be divorced from the wide mercies and inclusiveness of his music; and as a recording artist and composer whose gift was in how hard we worked to make everything sound easy. American Tunes compresses an entire spectrum of American folk song, and it seems here to exist within Toussaint himself, a man who contains multitudes. He ends it with his lone vocal contribution to the album, on Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” He dreams that he’s dying, and if that’s where he left us the album might be unbearable—but like “Come Sunday,” this one winds down with work left to be done, even the holy vocation of song; even amidst weariness, the record remains ever bright and bon vivant. He leaves us, then, with these songs talking amongst themselves, an endless river ever bending, and so much music still to be made.


Further resources:

IF YOU’LL LET ME LOVE YOU

Or: Bob Dylan sings for only the lonely.

fallenangels

Bob Dylan has now released two albums in a row of American standards; he’s knocked the dirt off the Songbook and returned these compositions to a place where they feel elemental, like oxygen or nickel: For decades singers and arrangers have built them up, but Bob takes them to a place where there’s nothing left to do to dishevel them. Here they are, their heart and their intentions laid bare. There is immense power in their naked presentation; even with nowhere to hide, they seem somehow more suggestive, more mysterious, more laden with unexplainable innuendos about the human condition than ever before. As an experiment, one might play Shadows in the Night and now Fallen Angels back to back, and then return to the twisted back roads of Love & Theft, Modern Times, or even Tempest. These songs may suddenly seem like they’re drifting through the air, or rippling across the water. They are part of that world he has built, a world that never really was but we all remember so clearly, its phantom roots gnarled deep into our ground. The jaded riverboat captain from “High Water” sings a little bit of a Charley Patton blues and then finds himself humming a fragment of “Stay with Me”—a song of ascent, to no one in particular. The exiled man from “Ain’t Talkin’” has “I’m a Fool to Want You” on his brain; he trudges from town to town with no home left to go to, tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door—and nameless desire consumes him. The cynical rogue from “Floater” drifts down to the tavern for an evening of cards and ale, and it’s “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” ambling along with its lazy gait, played by the band in the back corner. For just a moment, he believes in love all over again.

These standards belong to the same world, enough so that Dylan’s own “Moonlight” sounds like it could be one of them, so plainspoken and deeply instinctive is its romance. And the more time you spend with the two standards albums, the more it is evident how everything Dylan has done since Good as I Been to You is connected by the same worldview: These Sinatra-associated classics are Americana just as surely as the old blues on that album and World Gone Wrong; they are folklore just like the pilfered Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon bits on Modern Times and Together Through Life, or the strange reimaginings of the Harry Smith anthology on Love & Theft. Even the Norman Rockwell schmaltz of Christmas in the Heart is connected; if anything that album is the Rosetta stone for this entire act of world-building. At the time of its release Dylan told Bill Flannagan that he was a “true believer” in those yuletide hymns and carols, just like he is surely a true believer in the formal and mythic power of “Young at Heart” and “Autumn Leaves.” All of it’s music. All of it’s in the water here, in our blood. Dylan’s great subversion here—decades removed from his hipster snarl and Muhammed Ali press conferences—is sincerity: It’s a quiet subversion but a powerful one. What could be more unexpected from him now but to disappear so fully into the beautiful fracture, the wounded dignity of these songs—songs of holy fools and careless lovers, runaways and busted haloes.

Fallen Angels finds its meaning in this context, in how it plays like a tattered map to the worlds Dylan explored on those recent albums; these songs point the way out of Mississippi, past the broken levies and back to the mystic gardens. It also gains in stature and appeal when held up to its older brother, Shadows in the Night. That album was a lonesome reverie, songs for quiet contemplation in the wee small hours of the morning. It was haunted. Fallen Angels sounds more like the album you play as evening wears slowly into night; it’s not quite a swing album to Shadows’ saloon sound, but it does have an easygoing ramble to it, a gentle moonlit sway. It’s looser, rougher around the edges. Bob recorded it in the same sessions as the last album, backed by his road band; the muted horns that added depth to Shadows are all but gone here, but that lonesome steel guitar is here, along with fiddle. The songs take funny paths sometimes: Bob lets the band take “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” on a leisurely summer night’s stroll before he comes in with the words, he lets “Melancholy Mood” simmer as a slow shuffle, and he lets his drummer beat out a surprisingly raucous rhythm on “The Old Black Magic,” which generates a head of steam through a burst of hot jazz.  The record has a character all its own: It is at once a companion piece to Shadows in the Night and a record distinct from any other in Dylan’s catalog.

There is a higher quotient of familiar songs here. The last album had “Autumn Leaves,” but this one has “All the Way,” “It Had to Be You,” “Young at Heart,” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.” There are less conventional selections here—“On a Little Street in Singapore” and “Skylark” are precious excavations—but Dylan makes them all sound so mossy and strange, so ancient and earthy that the recors never feels standard even when it’s dealing in the most well-known of folk songs.

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The glory of these twin albums is in their tactile humanity; some standards albums sound completely plastic, but this one has a pulse you can feel, salt you can taste on your tongue. These are songs as primal as the Psalms, as Thelonious Monk’s Blue Note singles or the complete Robert Johnson. A song like “Maybe You’ll Be There” seems at once masterful in its economy and Shakespearean in its sweep: It’s the brokenhearted lament of every fool who’s ever woken up in the morning to an empty bed and a goodbye note. Dylan connects to his inner Ellington here, drawing out all the colors of his particular orchestra: First fiddle then horns and pedal steel offer their consolation as Dylan—ever masterful in his phrasing, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise—croons the lyric like some sorry Charlie who’s still in a bit of a shellshock: “Each time I see a crowd of people/ Just like a fool I stop and stare/ It’s really not the proper thing to do/ But maybe you’ll be there.” Like Sam Cooke, he’s lost and he’s lookin’ for his baby; he’s winding down the lonely avenue.

“All the Way” takes the role of “Stay with Me” on this record, a song so earnest, so transparent in its brokenness that it almost becomes a religious anthem—a hymn to a love divine, all loves excelling; or maybe just a fool’s delusion, a bit of wishful thinking. It’s a slow shuffle, and the whole story is told in the grain of Dylan’s voice: “Who knows where the road will lead us/ Only a fool would say/ But if you’ll let me love you/ It’s for sure I’m gonna love you all the way.” So much hinges on that if. Either the pilgrim will find his way home to the beloved—back to the mystic garden—or he’ll be left searching for a face in the crowd. Only a fool.

By contrast, “All or Nothing at All” is an ultimatum; the offer of a hand to hold. The song skates by on a slinky high-hat groove like something off Stardust, another great record that finds flesh and blood in these antique songs. The narrator here wants to be consumed: “All or nothing at all/ Half a love never appealed to me/ If your heart could yield to me/ Then I’d rather have nothing at all.” He’s on the other side of the aisle now, looking for the lover who’s going to love him all the way; a lover who’ll say, as the last song does, “I’m gonna love you like nobody’s loved you/ Come rain or come shine.” That’s a love that goes beyond romance, to the place where eros meets agape. Dylan’s been there before, back on Modern Times: “We live and we die/ We know not why/ But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.” Plenty of these songs have similar echoes from the adjoining room. In “Melancholy Mood” all he can see is grief and gloom, the crack of doom; he’s standing in the doorway crying, noose wrapped around his head. And on “That Old Black Magic” he’s aflame with burning desire. “I should stay away but what can I do?” he asks, getting ready to stay in Mississippi a day too long.

Pair this one with Shadows in the Night and you could steal a title from the most recent Hayes Carll album, Lovers & Leavers. They both have their own fool’s parade running through, but Fallen Angels is decisive in its tilt toward the light of romance. These are songs about being lonesome but looking; opening up to love and hoping for the best. The characters here are bruised and beaten, but they’re also young at heart. The narrator on “Skylark” sends a songbird in search of love and faithfulness: “I don’t know if you can find these things/ But my heart is riding on you.” The song is an answer to the guy who sang “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” or for that matter “Nothing Was Delivered.” Dylan doesn’t surrender to oblivion. He may be desperate but he’s no dummy: He’s seen the world and he knows the odds. And yet he stands ready to believe: There’s dusky light and day is losing, but maybe love is just a song away.


Further resources:

  • Stream it on Apple Music.
  • Buy it on Amazon.
  • Read Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s All Music review.
  • Read Douglas Heselgrave’s review in Paste.