If Bob Dylan had recorded Shadows In The Night, his new collection of 10 songs associated with Frank Sinatra, at any time before now, it wouldn’t have been right. These songs are so lived-in and well-worn; they weren’t written for a young man to sing. They’re difficult and a lot more tricky and nuanced than any of the other songs Dylan’s interpreted before this, and if he’d taken them on earlier, he may not have been up to the task and given in to the easy seduction of ironic delivery or parody. Or, even if he’d delivered them as respectfully and lovingly as he obviously does on every one of the 10 performances on this album, his fans may have thought that Dylan was messing with them again with another perverse caprice designed to see just how far they would bend. But, that’s not what’s going on with Shadows In The Night, for a good part of Dylan’s magic and continued appeal has to do with how he has always known not just how to sing, but what to sing. As a young man, when he interpreted Woody Guthrie’s off-the-cuff reports from the world of dungarees and dust, it felt right and made perfect sense in the same way that his singing these Sinatra standards makes sense today.
For a lot of people under the age of 40, Frank Sinatra is as remote, distant and mythological a figure as William Shakespeare. For kids of Dylan’s generation, his influence was inescapable. In his time, he was called a lot of things—Swoonatra, Chairman of the Board—but when the pressed dubbed him “the voice” early on in his career, that was the label that stuck. And what a voice it was. So unlike Bob Dylan’s voice, and yet both men shared an uncanny sense of phrasing and ways of subtly stretching syllables to convey emotion and meaning that was remarkably similar.
It’s impossible to believe that this is something that has been lost on Bob Dylan. And, while Dylan certainly lacks Sinatra’s trademark smooth delivery, he is his equal in terms of finessing the emotions and meanings suggested by a lyric. It’s quite a task Dylan set for himself with this project. These songs are like mountains; they are absolutely formidable. They are so familiar and the echo of Sinatra’s voice will always hover over them. I don’t think I could count the times I’ve listened to “Wee Small Hours” and “Where Are You?” when I’ve been feeling blue. Heartbroken and blown wide open with pain, Sinatra sang every one of those songs like his life depended on it. After listening to them again in preparation for this review, I was reminded of how impossibly high he set the bar for anyone else who decided to take on these songs. Realizing that they simply couldn’t be improved upon, Bob Dylan must have had something else in mind when he decided to record them himself.
He may have had a record of his own that he wanted to set straight. I remember the line in Don’t Look Back where he tells a reporter that he’s as good a singer as Caruso. When I first heard him say that, I thought he was taking the piss, but over the years, I’ve come to realize not only that he was serious, but that he might be right. Singing the songs he takes on here could be viewed as a dare, for no matter how lush the arrangements or unique the instrumentation, any recording of these standards will be judged on the quality of the voice that sings them. By inference, then, Dylan has put himself in a position where the focus is necessarily on his singing above anything else on Shadows In The Night. To his credit, Dylan’s voice is featured front and center in the mix. Thinking about it, it’s not that surprising. It’s been more than a decade since he strapped on a guitar in concert. On the last tour, he spent most of his time center stage, singing his heart out. It was almost as if he was preparing us for the reborn singer that we hear on this record. Maybe it’s that after performing in so many different guises over the years, it’s only now that we are finally getting the chance to hear Dylan’s voice, naked and with nowhere to hide.
Listening to Shadows In The Night is a surprisingly powerful experience. If you let go of your expectations when he sings “The Night We Called It A Day” and really soak in it, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that with Dylan, as with Sinatra, it’s always been about his voice. From the beginning, it has been Dylan’s most powerful asset, and the people who have simply called Bob Dylan a great songwriter whose works are best performed by others have missed out on something essential. His songs wouldn’t be one-tenth as powerful and true as they come across if his voice was more pleasing, more golden and silky smooth. Who’d have believed a word of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ if he had sung it like Pat Boone?
Depending on your perspective, one of the most continually interesting—or distressing—things about Dylan’s music is how his singing voice has changed and adapted over the years. He’s always taken a fearless approach to singing and has cast his voice so far out on a limb so many times that some crashes and burns have been inevitable. The results haven’t always been pretty, but I’d venture that Bob Dylan at his most vocally eccentric and grating is far more interesting than any of the pitch-perfect dross that passes off as singing these days.
As a master of story and an entertainer, Dylan has always known that a raconteur needs to use every resource at his disposal to get his message across. From very early on, he seems to have understood that the quality of his voice was just as important as his lyrics when sharing a song. Perhaps his greatest gift to music has been his ability to create a persona with his voice that could make his songs come to life and express a will of their own. The bucolic voice that sang the songs on Nashville Skyline perfectly reflected the reality of the happily married young man who wrote them. When Dylan sang “Tonight, I’m Going To Stay With You,” we felt the love and believed him. We never doubted the sincerity of the pain and hurt that the voice of the Blood On The Tracks singer shared any more than we were skeptical of the faith that moved the voice we heard on Slow Train Coming. But, of any of the voices Dylan has ever sung with, his current one is, hands down, the most unaffected and truthful.
It communicates an approach to singing that began to ripen around the time Love and Theft came out in 2001. It is the voice of the old guy who said he would just as happily sit and sing Charley Patton songs for those who cared to listen as write anything new. Love And Theft was the first record he produced himself (as Jack Frost) and in retrospect, it’s impossible not to wish that he’d done it much earlier. If you listen back, there’s a palpable hedging and fear of vocal imperfection in otherwise very good records like Oh Mercy, Under The Red Sky and Time Out Of Mind that makes the songs somehow less than they could have been. Dylan’s evolution as a singer hasn’t let up, and ever since Love And Theft, the strange beaten beauty that has always lived in his voice has been captured without excuse or apology. It’s an approach that has brought Dylan’s music to a new level of expression.
There simply aren’t any other artists of his generation—except for perhaps Leonard Cohen—who have continued to release music of such depth and quality. Ragged and scorched, the bare humanity of his voice opens a window that blows in dark and upsetting ideas that hover for days. Every rasp and pop from his throat gives the songs a physical presence that renders his lyrics into aural sculptures and their imagery into tapestries. They’re so weighty that they could be caught in a net and hung like paintings in a museum. They’re almost too powerful to take in any other way but a sip at a time. If you heard how Bob Dylan and his band performed the songs from Tempest on his last tour, you’ll have some idea of the approach to a song he’s taken with Shadows In The Night. On it, just like on the last tour, something absolutely incredible has been reached, something ineffable that aches with beauty.
Dylan is now singing with the voice of the last man standing. It’s a voice that accepts what life has become and moves nimbly and reverently within the grace of the intonation that God has left him with. Louis Armstrong is the only other American singer who has ever communicated as much soul, such complex weather worn textures and colors within such a limited range. But, the appeal of Dylan’s voice isn’t simply that it has a lot of miles on it. Weathered voices are a dime a dozen. Anybody can beat hell out of their vocal chords if they set their minds to it. To be able to sing like Bob Dylan sings on Shadows In The Night is no accident of lifestyle. You have to have something far deeper than that going on to sing like he does here.
Every performance on Shadows In The Night expresses a level of vocal maturity and intuition that he’s never quite reached before. The moods Dylan creates are so vivid. When he sings “Stay With Me,” you can taste the cold, day-old coffee and you don’t have to be told that the beds are unmade and the streets outside are rainy. When Dylan interprets “That Lucky Old Son,” you can feel the essence of what he’s learned from everything he has listened to and sung for the last half a century. All of the deep work he’s done to reverently internalize the sound of every growl, yodel and croon he’s ever heard pays off in spades on every one of these songs. Play “Autumn Leaves.” It’s the kind of song that can test any singer’s mettle, and Dylan doesn’t disappoint. It is as rich, relaxed and assured a version as I’ve ever heard.
Musically speaking, all of the songs on Shadows In The Night never come off as anything less than fabulous. Dylan’s current touring band is the best he’s ever had, and it’s wonderful to hear how when given fresh material, they rise to the challenge. The way they boil down the complexity of the original orchestral arrangements to suit a five-piece band is astounding. Tony Garnier’s stand-up bass and Donnie Herron’s lap steel that fills in for the original Nelson Riddle string arrangements deserve special mention. The whole band plays like they have nothing to prove, but even though they maintain a low profile, if you tune in and really listen, the instrumentation is as fine and nuanced as you could hope to hear anywhere.
Shadows In The Night should be remembered as one of Bob Dylan’s greatest albums that extends the story of American music he began telling us with Self Portrait that carried through the albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong. It’s not rock and roll. It’s not party music, but Shadows In The Night is better than I can find words to convince with. It makes me think that anyone else who’s been thinking of putting out a record this year should just close up shop, go on vacation and wait until 2016. The light that shines out of Shadows In The Night is blinding. When Dylan flexes and fires on all cylinders like this, nobody else has a chance.