The music legend released his second album of standards
Gene Seymour says there's nothing wrong with that
Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
After decades of rambling, raging, rocking and seemingly inexhaustible reinventing, the artist from Hibbing, Minnesota, born as Robert Zimmerman and known to us as Bob Dylan, is 75 years old, a walking diamond jubilee; still alive, still on the road and coming soon to an arena or amphitheater near you to sing classic popular music.
No. Not his classic popular music. (At least, not just his.) But pop standards closely associated with Frank Sinatra, including “It Had To Be You,” “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “That Old Black Magic,” “All or Nothing at All,” “All the Way” and “Young at Heart,” the wistful Johnny Richards-Carolyn Leigh standard from 1953 whose theme of enduring youth anticipated Dylan’s own “Forever Young,” which he’d recorded 20 years later.
The older standards comprising the newly released “Fallen Angels” (Columbia) represent Dylan’s second installment of Sinatra-related fare. Its immediate predecessor, “Shadows in the Night,” also on Columbia, was released last year.
While music critics have been gracious towards both albums, their appearances have also provoked streams of snark from cynics on all sides of the generational divide; some seeing in Dylan’s latest transformation a concession either to what moldy figs believe to be the better species of pop music or to the imperatives of – whisper it gently – old age.
But to the true believers, the ones who have kept faith with Dylan’s chameleonic changes from the time he enraged folk-music purists more than a half century ago by bringing amplifiers and electrified boogie to the Newport Folk Festival, the Sinatra covers aren’t an eccentric departure, They are simply a reassertion of the romantic spirit that has always been the essential core of Dylan’s music in all its varied permutations.
They’re onto something. The hard-boiled melancholy cloaking much of Sinatra’s recorded output of the mid-1950s isn’t all that distinct from the inward-looking, tough-minded musings on 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks.” Even the coarser, yet deeper songs on 1966’s Blonde on Blonde (the 50th anniversary of whose release was marked all over social media last week) still evoke longing and thwarted desire.
Back then, he seemed a lot angrier about this stuff. It takes more effort to get that mad. So why not light candles in the fog and gently sing the sun back up?
Not that Dylan cares either way what you think about it all. As was the case with his fellow Minnesotan, Prince, Dylan has always kept the masses enthralled by keeping his processes to himself. Both of them also shared an antic sense of humor they called upon to insulate themselves from fools.
Their music asks the doubters: Can’t figure us out? Too bad. Just try to keep up and maybe you’ll understand that “getting us” isn’t the point. Just keeping up, however, might be the only point that matters.
So if the spoilsports and the snark attackers want to throw brickbats instead of bouquets at Bob Dylan on his birthday, one suspects that’s fine with him. As has been the case with almost everything else he’s done from the time he picked up a guitar, everybody else will get the point of it all, if they stay “young at heart.” Or is it “forever young”?
Hey, man. Whatever.
Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his