by Josh Hurst

Or: Bob Dylan sings for only the lonely.


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.


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.