Last week, an old friend who is a musician emailed me when news broke that Bob Dylan’s new album Shadows In The Night is not original songs, but an album of standards that all happened to be recorded by Frank Sinatra. My friend wanted to know what my take was on Dylan performing material from what some refer to as “The Great American Songbook.”
Those who have closely followed Dylan’s 50 plus year career should not be surprised in the least by this development. Dylan has been toying around with standards since he recorded “Blue Moon” for Self Portrait in 1969. In 1985, at the first Farm Aid concert, Dylan sang “Lucky Old Sun” (which closes this album) and performed it several times the following year and occasionally after that. In 1987, Dylan performed a solo acoustic version of Gershwin’s “Soon” at a tribute concert in Brooklyn. Dylan has occasionally tried his hand at other standards and Sinatra songs in the studio. Some have surfaced on bootlegs, some haven’t. The song “Tomorrow Night” recorded on his album Good As I Been To You and recorded by numerous performers from blues singer Lonnie Johnson to Elvis Presley surely qualifies as a standard, and in 2,000, Dylan rearranged his song “Trying To Get To Heaven” in a jazz flavored manner that was approaching standards territory as did various songs on the albums of original material he’s released in this century. More to the point is the simple fact that during his career Dylan has tried his hand at virtually every type of American music, and this album is part of that musical expedition.
In an interview currently running not in Rolling Stone but in AARP magazine, Dylan says if he had to do it all over again, he would like to be a teacher. Sometimes Dylan can be a knucklehead and especially in this case because he already is one. One couldn’t possibly estimate how many people decided to find out who Woody Guthrie was because of him or the Stanley Brothers when he sang their songs at concert after concert in the ’90s or any of the other musicians he’s covered, referenced in his lyrics or mentioned in interviews.
In choosing to do this material, Dylan followed a route similar to that of Willie Nelson on his Stardust album by using his own band occasionally augmented by a small subtle horn section. The songs were recorded live in the studio apparently in the order they appear on the album. There were no overdubs. The only microphone Dylan wanted to see was the one he was using to sing into. The arrangements are all based on Sinatra recordings, though some are a little shorter or less extravagant. It is the first Dylan album where he doesn’t play an instrument and as such, given that this is an album of standards, there is no piano on the album. The use of percussion is minimal. Deserving of a huge amount of credit is pedal steel guitarist Donnie Herron whose brilliant playing provides much of the ambiance and feel of the album, along with the bowed bass of Tony Garnier. The guitars of Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball are often in the background, but some forward at just the right time on songs like “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Full Moon And Empty Arms.” Overall this is ensemble playing and not about solos.
Once Dylan starts singing, all talk of tribute albums or standards vanishes in the wind and it becomes a Bob Dylan album, and a fairly dark one at that. There are no fast songs, and all the songs, many of them from Sinatra’s 1957 album, Where Are You are torch songs. Loss, heartbreak and loneliness are the dominant themes.
From the first track, “I’m A Fool To Want You,” it becomes clear that this is some of the most committed singing Dylan has put on a recording in some time. It is Dylan without a mask. His voice is quiet, yet vulnerable and he never tries to phrase like Sinatra, emphasizing the words he cares about. The track is close to chilling in its intensity, leaving the listener no doubt Dylan has lived what he’s singing about. And that feeling extends to every song on the album.
The album gets slightly upbeat with “The Night We Called It A Day,” which is followed by “Stay With Me (Main Theme From The Cardinal)” the surprise highlight of Dylan’s recent US tour.
By recording live without overdubs or earphones for that matter, Dylan is clearly going for emotion over musical perfection and yes there are times when he almost makes the note or his voice cracks, but all of that adds to the feel of the album and works to enhance tracks like “Autumn Leaves.” His rendition is downright spooky, you can practically feel the leaves falling in the early twilight, as the singer gazes out the window from a house where the emptiness rules everything.
Dylan sings “Why Try To Change Me Now” like it was written solely for him, with lines like “I’ve got some habits even I can’t explain” or “Why Can’t I Be More Conventional?” Even though the song is one of inherent sadness, Dylan’s voice suggests a sly smile behind the lyrics and as such it’s a standout.
While “Some Enchanted Evening” is sung by other singers, with a tone of optimism, Dylan sings it as if it’s a dream that couldn’t possibly come true. The way he sings the last line, “Once you have found her, never let her go,” would not have been out of place on Blood On The Tracks.
“Full Moon And Empty Arms” was released on the internet on Dylan’s official site last spring and remains the perfect example of what Dylan is attempting and achieving – a feeling of dreamy mystery that pervades the entire album.
“Where Are You” and “What’ll I Do” though very different in mood and feel both add to the impression that this is also a concept album about a man looking back at his life and wondering how he screwed up so many relationships.
Dylan concludes the album with “Lucky Old Sun,” which will stand with the best vocals he’s ever put on record. I can’t listen to it without playing it again. It’s the track where you suddenly realize who the person is who’s been singing for the past half hour and every incarnation, every voice of a half-century suddenly flashes by. The track is simply magnificent.
While Shadows In The Night will no doubt have its detractors, in terms of feel, cohesiveness and intensity, it’s one of the best albums he’s released this century. Acutely aware that he was one of the contributors to knocking these songs off the charts, there is no doubt that he put a lot of thought into both the presentation and the performance and cares about this music deeply. Dylan has always been about music tradition, even when people thought he was breaking with it. In making this music sound vital, not like a relic, without the slightest hint of camp, he is clearly saying this too is part of the tradition. And while he’s aiming this towards his older fans, he’ll probably end up teaching some kids about Frank Sinatra, popular music and musical arrangements along the way.
Peter Stone Brown is a freelance writer and singer-songwriter. His site and blog can be found here: http://www.peterstonebrown.com/