Darling, down and down I go, round and round I go
In a spin, loving the spin that I’m in
Under that old black magic called love
A few months from this time of writing, Bob Dylan will be performing at a big music event in California, sharing the bill with his contemporaries and fellow septuagenarians the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. No doubt the Stones will be singing “Satisfaction” and “Paint it Black,” and no doubt McCartney will be singing “Yesterday” and “Band on the Run.” And no doubt Bob Dylan will be singing … well, “Autumn Leaves,” “All or Nothing at All,” and “That Old Black Magic.” You have to pause a moment to contemplate how wonderfully absurd and amazing that actually is. In his most recent shows, more than a third of the titles in his set list have been what we might call these “Sinatra” songs, and of the “Bob Dylan” songs in the show most have been from the past decade and a half or so, with only 3 dating back to the 1960s or 70s. And although some concert attendees have been heard griping (and when has that not been true at a Dylan show?), the most notable fact is that he’s actually been getting away with it in quite fine style. Dylan is conspicuously deriving great joy from singing the standards and puts his whole body and spirit into the effort. Singing these gorgeous old tunes (from songwriters he had some significant role in putting out of business) seems undeniably to be making his own heart feel young.
Fallen Angels landed in the record stores just over a year after Shadows in the Night, and like that album it was recorded at Capitol’s studio B with Al Schmitt engineering, and in terms of sound it is once again exquisite. One of Dylan’s aims here seems to have been to recapture the way great popular records used to sound, and the degree of his success in that on these two albums is by itself an achievement to be applauded.
While Shadows in the Night was a pretty direct tribute to Sinatra, Fallen Angels spreads its wings a bit more in terms of song selection and arrangements, although the Chairman of the Board is still very much around (and may he always be around). Contrary to the knowing remarks of so many commentators at the time, Shadows included a lot of relatively little known songs. Fallen Angels includes a lot more songs that the average listener to the radio would be familiar with. In terms of mood, Shadows ventured pretty far down into the well of pain, or certainly intense yearning, whereas Falling Angels has bouncier arrangements, featuring more sprightly guitar-picking versus the previously dominant pedal-steel. So, to this listener the mood seems to circle around wistful longing, colored by streaks of joy.
There’s so much one could say about this album, precisely because it was designed to have endless depth. That depth is in the songs, the singing, the playing, as well as the gorgeousness of the recording. In all of these aspects the album brims with a love that seems to overflow out of the speakers; these songs of great love are performed with great love.
When hearing a song that one knows performed anew, one’s ears look for what the new thing is that this performer is bringing to the song. If they bring nothing new, then the performance basically passes unnoticed. I think Bob Dylan does bring something new to these songs, both by virtue of his sensitive and loving performances, and by virtue, I guess, of just who he is—and those things are necessarily tricky to separate out. It’s also necessarily subjective, but all the same I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of other listeners out there who are hearing similar things to what I’ve been hearing in Dylan’s singing of these songs.
Take, as a prime example, the opening track, “Young At Heart.” It’s been characterized as a light song, and I’ve always thought of it that way too: as a little bit of easy-listening candy for the ears, albeit dignified by Sinatra’s lovely reading. After all, when the first line of a song is “Fairy tales can come true …” you kind of figure you’re firmly in the land of rose-colored goggles.
Yet Bob Dylan finds and elevates something else in this song, and I think he brings to it a startling and special believability. There are certainly no elements of kitsch or irony in his performance: only deep warmth and sincerity. And it being Bob Dylan (in his mid-70s) who is singing these words with this kind of feeling cannot but make this listener reflect a little more on the words, and wonder at them. Dylan is someone who takes words seriously. He’s a guy who, in 1985, complained about the lines he had to sing in “We Are The World,” (“There’s a choice we’re making / We’re saving our own lives / It’s true we make a better day just you and me!”) saying in an interview:
“I wasn’t so convinced about the message of the song … I don’t think people can save themselves … I just don’t agree with that type of thing.”
So what is this prescription of being “young at heart”—which curmudgeonly-Bob is fulsomely recommending—really all about? It seems fantastical. When you’re young at heart, the song says …
You can go to extremes
With impossible schemes
You can laugh when your dreams
Fall apart at the seams
When can that be true? If you’ve lived longer than a couple of decades (perhaps even if you haven’t) you should know something about the difficulty in the above propositions. Pursuing “impossible schemes,” powered by hope, is not a common ability, but rather a great gift (where for some of us sometimes it might seem nearly impossible just to make it all the way from breakfast to dinner). And then to just laugh when your dreams “fall apart at the seams”: Who can do this? Can you do it by just smiling and whistling a happy tune? Yet Dylan sings all this like he believes it.
The next lines cap it all and I think provide a kind of answer:
And life gets more exciting with each passing day
And love is either in your heart or on its way
Hearing Dylan sing these lines with his very special kind of gentleness and warmth made something click for this listener: It occurred to me that being “young at heart” means being filled with love, and open to love. That’s how life can get more exciting every day; that’s how hardships and even the failure of one’s dreams can be borne and swept aside. It’s not about feeling chronologically young, but rather that endless youth that some are able to find and share by approaching everything and everyone with a truly loving heart. That’s the good thing that is being recommended here, at the heart of it all. And it’s no small thing.
The song goes on:
Don’t you know that it’s worth
Every treasure on earth
To be young at heart
For as rich as you are
It’s much better by far
To be young at heart
Now, being on different ground, and again hearing Bob Dylan sing these lines, other things are coming into view. Where have I heard stuff like the above before? There are some lines in the Bible, aren’t there? Like maybe this:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
And there’s a decent reason that the Bible comes to mind: Dylan’s own songs have always been filled with biblical quotes, paraphrases and allusions, so that source of sources is lurking in the vicinity whenever I hear him sing, and it also seems not unnatural to imagine he himself would hear biblical echoes—utterly unintentional as they may be—in these great popular songs.
So, in Dylan’s voice “Young at Heart” doesn’t seem like quite such a meaninglessly sweet song anymore (and more the fool me for having thought it so); there is a substance to the cheerfulness, a reason for it to be genuinely encouraging and uplifting. He added not a syllable nor a jot to the lyric; he merely added his singing and himself, and yet opened up levels in the song that were (to this listener at least) not readily apparent before. (It’s worth noting that the lyric to “Young at Heart” was written by Carolyn Leigh, who also wrote the intense prayer-in-song “Stay with Me,” which was an all but unknown oddity in Sinatra’s catalog until Dylan sang it on his last album. He also chose to close many of his live shows with that song.)
Love in the end is clearly the key that opens up all of these songs, and, in Dylan’s voice, they shimmer and grow and resonate in a special way. They are great songs already as sung by Sinatra and the other terrific vocalists who have performed them, but Dylan (as he has done in his own songs) seems to find the bridge between these grand expressions of vast, undying romantic love and another kind of love; that would be the kind of love at the heart of the universe (if one believes there is anything at its heart), the love that powers everything, the love keeps the very atoms from flying apart in chaos, and the kind of love that genuinely never dies. And the Bible, which tells the greatest love story of all (between the Creator and His creatures) provides parallel after parallel for the sentiments in these songs.
So here are some of the kinds of things that have been flitting across my doubtlessly addled consciousness when hearing Dylan sing these songs:
All or nothing at all
Half of love never appealed to me
If your ever heart never could yield to me
Then I’d rather have nothing at all …
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 …
I should stay away but what can I do?
I hear your name and I’m aflame
Aflame with such a burning desire
That only your kiss can put out the fire
Days may be cloudy or sunny
We’re in, or we’re out of the money
But I’m with you always
I’m with you rain or shine
Now, once you start hearing these things in the songs, you can go on forever. What would be a hard one?
On a little street in Singapore,
We’d meet beside a lotus-covered door,
A veil of moonlight on her lonely face,
How pale the hands that held me in embrace.
My sails tonight are filled with perfume of Shalimar,
And temple bells will guide me to the shore.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
“Skylark”? Picture a bird as the divine Spirit, uplifting, inspiring, leading you closer …
Have you anything to say to me?
Won’t you tell me where my love can be?
Is there a meadow in the mist
Where someone’s waiting to be kissed?
But trying to make a comprehensive list of such associations would be hopeless and ultimately joyless. It’s in hearing these depths and resonances in the songs as they unfold and undulate and gently drift off that the joy comes. That’s what Dylan gives to these songs. He uncovers spiritual depths that were already there, it seems to me, and in his singing he shares his own love of what he’s found. If the angels, as we are told, sing in a perpetual chorus to God in heaven, then these songs are here revealed to be nothing so much as angels that fell into the pop charts, first all those years ago, and now once more. The profane and the sacred collide. But then it’s so hard to keep those two apart.
And if this turns out to be Dylan’s final chapter, who could have written a better one?
Who knows where the road will lead us?
Only a fool would say
But if you let me love you
It’s for sure I’m gonna love you
All the way …