If this album of pop standards from Bob Dylan surprises you, then you simply haven’t been paying attention to the man’s career. For more than half a century now, he has delivered almost nothing but surprises—to the point where his “surprises” are anything but.
First he transformed himself in a matter of months from Minnesota college student Robert Zimmerman into a seemingly well-traveled folk and blues singer; then he shocked his Newport Folk Festival audience by going electric and turning to rock; a few years after that, he changed his voice, headed for Nashville and dueted with Johnny Cash. Later, he became a Christian and issued a couple of religious albums; returned from a major career slump with 1974’s astonishing Blood on the Tracks; delivered a Christmas album that included “Here Comes Santa Claus”; proved to be the world’s best disc jockey with his Theme Time Radio Hour; produced a first-rate autobiography; began selling his paintings in galleries; and released The Complete Basement Tapes, which found him singing everything from Hank Williams numbers to '50s pop hits like “Silhouettes” and “Mr. Blue.” Oh, yeah, he also did a Victoria’s Secret ad and a Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler.
Clearly, Dylan is not only comfortable taking chances and trying something new; it’s what he prefers. As he said in his terrific recent interview with AARP The Magazine editor Robert Love, his creative process always starts with “what I don’t have instead of doing more of the same.”
In fact, though, while one thing he didn’t previously have was an album like Shadows in the Night, this is not entirely fresh territory for him. There were hints that he loved standards like the ones here as far back as Self-Portrait and also throughout his Theme Time Radio Hour, where he evidenced an amazing grasp of the entire history of American popular music. Indeed, he covered Dean Martin’s “Return to Me” on the Sopranos soundtrack more than a decade ago and he has sung many if not all of the songs on Shadows in the Night in concerts; and as he told AARP, he has wanted to make an album like this ever since the late 1970s, when he heard Willie Nelson’s Stardust LP. But when he proposed the project back then, Columbia Records president Walter Yetnikoff said the label would neither pay for nor release it. So Dylan made Street Legal instead.
That was a fine (and highly underrated) album, but I’m glad he finally got around to this ten-song collection, which shines for at least three key reasons.
First, the material—whose common thread is that Frank Sinatra recorded all of it at one time or another—is stellar. As Dylan acknowledged to AARP, “these are the same songs that rock ’n’ roll came to destroy” and that his generation once “didn’t think much of.” But he has always appreciated them, and rightly so. Some of them—such as “Autumn Leaves,” with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening”—you undoubtedly know. Others are a bit more obscure. But all of them are evocative and memorable. They come from a particular part of the Sinatra songbook—the part you’d expect to hear issue from a lovesick singer in a dimly lit bar at 3 o’clock in the morning.
The second reason this album succeeds so fully is that rather than trying to modernize or embellish the material, Dylan (who produced, under the pseudonym Jack Frost) strips it down to bare essentials and performs every track live in the studio: no orchestra, no backup singers, no overdubs, no headphones, no vocal booth. This is just him in a room at Capitol studios (where Sinatra also recorded) with five accompanists, including bassist Tony Garnier, pedal-steel player Donny Herron, guitarists Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball and percussionist George Receli (a small horn section joins them on three tracks). The result is a recording that sounds much more intimate and personal than most of today’s CDs.
But the most important “secret sauce” that makes this 36th studio album one of Dylan’s finer achievements is his voice, which seems little changed from the one we heard on his last few albums of new material. I understand why many people disagree when I argue that besides being a brilliant songwriter, Dylan is one of the greatest vocalists of the rock era: he doesn’t exactly have a five-octave range, nor does his baritone have anywhere near the richness of Sinatra or the polish of, say, Gordon Lightfoot; in fact, he is occasionally off-key here and sometimes misses a high note.
But not all music is meant to be ear candy; and if one key goal of a vocalist is to convey emotion, Dylan ranks among the masters. Just listen, for example, to his vocals and phrasing on Blood on the Tracks or 1997’s Time Out of Mind. Or spend some time with this new album, where he fully inhabits lyrics like those of the melancholy “I’m a Fool to Want You.” Dylan’s voice may sound more than a bit rough and world-weary but it takes you where the lyricist wants you to go and is a perfect fit for the material here.
How many other artists are still producing music this vital and fascinating more than 52 years after their first release? There’s nobody quite like Bob Dylan. And there’s nothing else out there quite like Shadows in the Night.