Bob Dylan: Shadows in the Night
With Bob Dylan’s 34th proper studio album, Shadows in the Night, the 73-year old barometer of popular musical crankiness finds a fresh shtick, crooning songs associated with Frank Sinatra. Presumably shocking somebody, somewhere, the album is mostly the sound of Dylan quite audibly satisfying his natural compulsion for reinvention. Dylan, of course, does it his way, tenderly gargling over a soft-hued chamber country combo with occasional lite brass and absolutely no drums at all.
The most atmospheric Dylan full-length since the surrealistic swamp of 1997’s Time Out of Mind, the 10 songs provide Dylan with a gorgeous pause from the generic jump-blues of his recent albums and transforming full-on into the balladeer he’d only pretended at. A sequel, in some ways, to the simple pleasures of Nashville Skyline, though substantially less kitschy, Dylan’s song choices are nothing if not elegant, like the immortal “Autumn Leaves” (with its own French-to-English folk song-like history) or the Tin Pan Alley standard “That Lucky Old Sun,” from which Dylan effortlessly growls out the Biblical undertones.
Leading off with “I’m A Fool To Want You,” the only selection written in part by Sinatra himself, Dylan assigns Sinatra’s cinematic pop orchestrations throughout almost entirely to Donnie Herron’s pedal steel and Charlie Sexton’s guitar. French horns and trombones sometimes swirl by, but the guitarists might as well be the only musicians playing. Sounding like latter-day Lambchop, the band isn’t given much space to blow, so much as richly support the main attraction: the fully strange septuagenarian beauty of Bob Dylan’s voice.
The punchline is that Bob Dylan’s voice is amazing. He executes ineffable microtonal pirouettes, hits controlled leaps to hidden melodic ledges, and sometimes textures the between-verse space with well-mic’d mouth-wheezes, as if honking a ghost harmonica. Given Dylan’s penchant for appropriation and reference, Shadows in the Night also provides a new class of source material for Dylanologists to unscramble; perhaps decoding just why “Stay With Me” (from 1965) seems to echo Dylan’s own standard “Forever Young,” written nine years later, like a spectral sibling.
His most striking work since 2001’s Love & Theft, Bob Dylan has recorded the best kind of Bob Dylan album: complex and rewarding, wry and wise, grumpy and inviting, odd and gorgeous. Maybe he’ll do Donovan next.