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Bob Dylan again turns to the Great American Songbook.

Bob Dylan's new "Fallen Angels" (like his previous "Shadows in the Night") turns to the Great American Songbook.

by Bruce Sylvester




Columbia (CD)

The mercurial Mr. Dylan has repeatedly surprised us over the past five decades: electric rock at 1965's Newport Folk Festival, pastoral “Nashville Skyline,” born-again Christianity, then a sojourn with his Jewish heritage. Last year's “Shadows In The Night” was a quiet offering of songs recorded by Frank Sinatra but not particularly associated with him.

His new twelve-song “Fallen Angels” continues “Shadows”' vibe. Donnie Herron's wide-open steel guitar notes dreamily open both discs, this time on a cover of Sinatra's 1954 hit “Young At Heart” (the Great American Songbook's counterpart to Dylan's own “Forever Young” from the 1970s). With 75-year-old Dylan's creaky voice, the ballad takes on different implications than when Sinatra recorded it at a relatively young age 37. Most songs here were recorded by Sinatra, but this time we get two of his major hits: “Young at Heart” and “All the Way.”

Skillfully producing the CD under his pen name Jack Frost, Dylan has again kept the backup subdued and discreet to fit the aging in his voice. The drawn-out instrumental intro to “Polka Dots And Moonbeams” is sublime.

Some tracks work better than others. The liveliest number, “That Old Black Magic,” was first recorded in waltz time by Glenn Miller in 1942. The arrangement here has vestiges of Louis Prima and Keely Smith's way more up-tempo 1958 hit version.

Dylan began his recording career saluting populist songwriter Woody Guthrie. Here he's honoring Guthrie's pop contemporaries like Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and Sammy Kahn, though authors aren't credited in the booklet. Maybe young Bobby Zimmerman heard his parents singing these songs around the house back in Hibbing, MN.

Whatever musical direction Dylan takes next, it will surely be something few of us would have imagined. And that's part of his genius.