“NOSTALGIA IS death,” Bob Dylan once noted. While countless other contemporaries have recorded Great American Songbook collections, Shadows In The Night – Dylan’s contribution to the concept – is not, by any definition, a recreation of the past. There are no sweeping strings, no operatic background singers, no ukuleles or harp glissandi or tinkly cocktail pianos. If the songs here weren’t already known, any could easily fit on “Love And Theft” or Modern Times and nobody would blink if told these were Bob Dylan originals (think Bye And Bye or Beyond The Horizon). If Dylan’s presentation is similar to anyone’s, it’s Willie Nelson’s on his classic Stardust – both are understated, both utilise their road bands, both singers make the songs their own.
“One wondered whether Dylan would ever carry a tune again. Then this arrives.”
All 10 of Shadows… selections were previously recorded by Frank Sinatra, making it Bob’s tip of the tilted fedora to “Mr Frank”. In his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan wrote of Sinatra’s version of Ebb Tide: “When Frank sang that song, I could hear everything in his voice – death, God and the universe, everything.” The same can be said for Dylan’s half-century of work. When he has on occasion made a misstep, it’s usually because he went against natural instincts and accepted bad advice. (See Empire Burlesque. And when Jack Frost – aka Bob – became the producer, consistent quality returned to his studio work from “Love And Theft” onwards.) While Sinatra and Dylan are separated by a generation, as well as style, both brought a naturalism to popular vocalising. For mid-century white singers, Sinatra shut down the Nelson Eddy school of stiff squaredom, while Dylan took it further and made it permissible for a voice not considered “pretty” to be valid. And both men are, of course, rooted in the blues.
Conventional wisdom often posits that while Dylan may be a unique vocal stylist, he’s not a ‘good’ singer. This is one of the lazier notions in pop music babble. In his youth, Dylan’s technique – his phrasing, breath control and emotive power – was exemplary. What he’s lost over the years is range and some of that oomph. While his studio voice has remained strong, his critics are credible when they argue that there are times in concert when he’s unlistenable and even die-hards find his erratic performances maddening. It’s one thing to improvise, to shift melodies and rewrite lyrics – it’s another to render songs completely unrecognisable. There have been moments when one wondered whether Dylan would ever carry a tune again. Then something like Shadows In The Night arrives and we remember that he is the king of the confounded expectation.
Which is to say that his singing on Shadows… is his best vocalising in years – in-studio or out. The audible regret on opener I’m A Fool To Want You is heartbreaking – Blood On The Tracks condensed in under five minutes. The accumulated miles in his perfectly imperfect voice and resignation in his pleading phrasing lifts album closer That Lucky Old Sun into realms unmatched save for the very best. His diaphragm-to-throat equilibrium is nearly flawless and when he wavers or doesn’t quite hit or hold the designated note, it’s in keeping with Bob’s lifetime fealty to artistic realism. He glides with the melodies and relaxes into them, enjoying the ride that these gems provide with the help of his road band and restrained horns. (Donnie Herron’s heart-tugging pedal steel functions as orchestration and he’s responsible for much of the album’s gorgeous sound.)
As for the production, it not only perfectly serves the songs and singer with sensitivity, but is balm in an era of overwrought artificiality or its opposite cousin, land-of-the-twee Americana. Dylan explained Frost’s modus operandi in a press release. “It was all done live. Maybe one or two takes. No overdubbing. No vocal booths. No headphones. No separate tracking and, for the most part, mixed as it was recorded.” (Huzzahs to vet engineer Al Schmitt for flawlessly executing a daunting task.) Like such practitioners of the artistic process who allow for rough edges like Picasso or Thelonious Monk, Dylan’s handful of mistakes are part of his art – a human element in a corporate world that places a premium on assembly-line sameness. As Monk maintained, “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.”
Besides a handful of chestnuts, the song choices lean to the lesser known. “I don’t see myself as covering these songs… what me and my band are doing is uncovering them,” explains Dylan. Much will be made of the autumnal theme: from the age of the material (at least one stemming from 1923) to songs like Autumn Leaves and That Lucky Old Sun that address mortality. But this extraordinary record is more refreshing burst than last gasp and its timelessness speaks more to life than death. With lyrics scribed by pros like Irving Berlin and Oscar Hammerstein and wrapped in Dylan’s musical naturalism, thoughts that were first expressed in, say, 1952 (Why Try To Change Me Now) ring true in 2015 and odds are will do the same in 2052.
Speaking of Why Try To Change Me Now, it was literally tailor-made for Frank by Cy Coleman and Joseph McCarthy. Furious at Columbia Records’ attempts to commercialise him with material he considered unworthy, the song was Sinatra’s last for the label before he jumped ship for Capitol Records, where his collaboration with producer Nelson Riddle yielded sublime classics. “Why can’t I be more conventional? But that’s not for me,” Sinatra sang on Why Try To Change Me Now. “It was Sinatra’s way of saying no,” observed writer Mark Steyn of both song and message. “I’ll stick with the music and in the end the music will win.”
And yet again, so it has.
Check out Bob giving Frank his props back in ’95 below...