Back when the formative ’50s took off into the soaraway ’60s, the generation gap between the parental bow-tie daddy and turned-on baby boomer was a gulf, and it extended to almost everything. Each had their figureheads, bugbears and touchstones. Though he never went to war, for America’s Greatest Generation Frank Sinatra had soundtracked every step of the way, from the run-up to Pearl Harbor to Ike’s peacetime cornucopia; the Hoboken Canary was the well-tailored everyman who sang and swung romance into every spanking new split-level suburban home with its pool-table front lawn and two-car driveway. For their children, Dylan’s generation with its intellectual and emotional boot-heels set to wandering, Sinatra was a corporate lifestyle shill, Chairman of the Boring and Mayor of Squaresville compared to outsider cats in hats whether cooling the clubs like Mingus and Miles or tearing it up in the backwoods like Guthrie and Williams. For Mom and Pop, better dead than Red; for Junior, better Hank than Frank.
“In Harold Arlen I could hear rural blues and folk. There was an emotional kinship.”
Even half a century after this cultural war raged at its height, eyebrows lifted when in 2014 Bob Dylan cut a bunch of songs, 10 of them released last year as Shadows In The Night, famously sung by Sinatra.
Fundamentalists of the idea of Dylan having reset Year Zero on the American songcraft clock can’t say they weren’t warned. A few of these Tin Pan Alley songs have popped up in his setlists since the ’90s, and in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, Dylan recalls finding Judy Garland’s hit The Man That Got Away on a New York beatnik hang-out’s jukebox. Its tunesmith was Harold Arlen, famous for the “cosmic” Over The Rainbow. “In Harold’s songs I could hear rural blues and folk music. There was an emotional kinship there. I couldn’t help but notice it.” With lyricist Johnny Mercer, Arlen also wrote That Old Black Magic and Come Rain Or Come Shine, both of which Dylan sings here.
What Dylan gives us in these recordings is something of a sentimental memoir. Though his creative journey from Bobby to ‘Dylan’ started at around 10 years old when hearing Johnnie Ray on the radio and then Hank Williams broadcast on the Grand Ole Opry, our hero’s first musical performance predated this conscious quickening of his musical spirit: aged four at a family party he brought the house down with his renditions of Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive and Some Sunday Morning, songs of sweetness and pep for the folks at home with seemingly nothing in common with his thrillingly modern yet deep-rooted songs two decades later, save for the raw materials from which they were crafted – words, melody and harmony. Yet he has form as a writer in this idiom in such songs as 2001’s Moonlight, arguably even 1969’s Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You.
“These covers have re-energised Dylan on-stage. For that alone, three cheers.”
Following Shadows In The Night, Fallen Angels’ 12 songs are the second batch from the 23 recorded in Hollywood’s famed Capitol Records’ Studio B in 2014. All but Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s Skylark were recorded by Sinatra; some songs famously, like Young At Heart, others, like On A Little Street In Singapore, less so. As a singer, Dylan is no Sinatra, of course, carefully tracking as best he can at his age this repertoire’s melodic contours, with expressive phrasing a lesser priority, in contrast to the liberties he takes on his own less melodically intricate songs.
These covers have re-energised Dylan on-stage, where he feels he is most truly doing his job as a troubadour. For that alone, three cheers. In all its dimensions, latter-day Dylan may be the greatest efflorescence of artistry in playful old age since Eric Rohmer or even Picasso. In Skylark, which Bob sings delightfully here, lyricist Johnny Mercer seems almost to be describing his unlikely interpreter as he bobs and weaves round the world stage in his skittishly magnetic victory lap:
“And in your lonely flight/Haven’t you heard the music in the night/Wonderful music/Faint as a will o’ the wisp, crazy as a loon/Sad as a gypsy serenading the moon.”
The full version of this review is available in the July issue of MOJO, on sale in the UK from May 24.