A review of “Shadows in the Night” by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s main strength as a recording artist is undoubtedly his songwriting, which is why it can seem like an odd decision when he decides to release albums of covers, like “Shadows in the Night”. It’s nothing new, though: before this, there was “Christmas in the Heart” (2009), “World Gone Wrong” (1993) and “Good as I Been to You” (1992). Several of his previous albums have also included a significant amount of covers: “Down in the Groove” (1988), “Knocked Out Loaded” (1986), “Self Portrait” (1970) and of course his debut album, “Bob Dylan” (1962). These previous cover albums have had varying amounts of success. To put it less politely, some of them have been a bit crap, most notoriously “Knocked Out Loaded” and “Down in the Groove” (I mean, even the names of those albums are terrible). “Christmas in the Heart”, the most recent album of covers, and Bob Dylan’s first Christmas album, was thought by many to be some kind of joke. To be fair to that album, it’s not unlistenable to, in the same way that amateur carol-singers are not unlistenable to, but it’s by no means great music. So when it turned out that “Shadows in the Night” was going to be another cover album, consisting of songs sung by Frank Sinatra, I think many people had some trepidation. It could have easily turned out quite badly. Sinatra, after all, was one of the greatest singers of popular music. Dylan, not so much. He’s never been a bad singer, he just has a style which can be divisive, but he’s obviously not in the same league as Sinatra, and now that he’s 73 it must be a lot more difficult for him to reach and hold his notes.

But there was a strong motivation for Dylan to make this album a good one, which wasn’t present on “Christmas in the Heart”: he had to make it an appropriate tribute to Sinatra, who died in 1998. It’s true that in their early days, Sinatra and Dylan were kind of at odds, since Dylan was seen as a kind of representative of the 60s counterculture, and to the members of this counterculture Sinatra was seen as a hopelessly unhip outsider. Sinatra, for his part, famously once described rock and roll music as “the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear”. But in the 1990s when they were both older, there was clearly mutual respect between them. For Sinatra’s 80th birthday in 1995, lots of famous performers—Bono, Ray Charles, etc.— were invited to sing his songs for a TV special. Bob Dylan was among them, but rather than singing one of Sinatra’s songs, he sang one of his own, “Restless Farewell”, apparently at Sinatra’s own request. And since then, Dylan’s musical direction and his Theme Time Radio Hour have indicated that he has developed a fascination with American music of the 40s and 50s, which was, of course, the time when Sinatra was at his peak.

(You might wonder why Dylan is making a tribute to Frank Sinatra in 2015 and not some other time, but I don’t think we can make too much of this. He seems to have a tendency to make tributes to people long after they’ve gone, rather than immediately afterwards. There was “Roll on John”, for example, a tribute to John Lennon, which was released 32 years after Lennon’s death in 2012. Most oddly of all, perhaps, he released “Lenny Bruce” during his Christian period in 1981, 15 years after Lenny Bruce’s death, on an album mostly made up of songs with religious themes.)

So has “Shadows in the Night” turned out to be a worthy tribute? In my opinion, it has. In fact, it may be the best album of covers Bob Dylan has released since his debut. It certainly beats “Christmas in the Heart”, that’s for sure. Of course, it’s hard to compare it to the albums with original content, because it is such a different kind of album. Compared to albums like “Tempest” and “Modern Times”, “Shadows in the Night” is more straightforward and easy to listen to. This is not to say that it is better or worse than those albums, because sometimes you might appreciate this quality and other times you might not. But if you haven’t listened to much of post-1997 Bob Dylan, this record might be a better introduction than those other albums, because it will help you get used to his voice.

The voice, of course, is one of the main problems people tend to have with post-1997 Bob Dylan. People have always had problems with Bob Dylan’s voice; it’s never been an especially pleasant-sounding one, except perhaps for a brief period in 1968. But lately, as he has become an old man, he has started to sound like an old man too, and his voice has become even harder to like than before. This is not to say that it’s impossible to like his voice. I mean, I like his voice. After you’ve listened to it a lot, it becomes familiar; all its flaws turn into endearing qualities. In fact, it seems in a way quite appropriate for the songs on “Shadows in the Night”. Dylan has wisely avoided covering the more confident, self-assured Frank Sinatra songs like “My Way” or “That’s Life”. The songs he’s picked are more subdued, introspective, and often rather sad ones like “Autumn Leaves” and “Why Try to Change Me Now”, and when you hear them sung by such an aged voice it adds a kind of extra texture to that mood. Expressions of regret carry more gravity, for example. You wonder how long ago it has been since the narrator of “Autumn Leaves”‘s “darling” went away—20 years, 30, 40?

Age has, however, also caused more serious technical problems to appear in Dylan’s singing sometimes, which are evident in his live performances. His voice sounds harsh enough already, but an unpleasant kind of growl often accompanies words that he stresses. He can’t hold notes for very long. He changes the melodies of his old songs, probably so he doesn’t strain his voice too much trying to reach notes which are now very difficult for him to reach, and while the new melodies can be nice they are not usually better than the original ones (after all, he probably put a lot more thought into the original ones). But on “Shadows in the Night”, he manages to almost completely avoid these technical problems. In fact, once you get past the voice, I think you’ll be able to see that he actually sings the melodies of this songs quite flawlessly. I can’t hear him singing any wrong notes, anyway, if I compare his renditions to Sinatra’s. This is remarkable considering a lot of these songs require him to hold notes for longer and use a wider range than he’s needed to for most of the self-composed songs on his other recent albums. Just listen to the first song, “I’m a Fool to Want You”; I think that high note the second time he says “fool” is the highest note on a released song of his that there’s been for years. It seems like he must have been putting in a stellar effort to sing well on this album. Or perhaps he’s just more interested in these songs than his recent stuff and finds it easier to sing them well.

Let’s have a look at the songs briefly. “I’m A Fool To Want You” is a good opener with a striking melody, and, as I mentioned above, it’s remarkable how well Dylan sings it. “The Night We Called It A Day” is a less striking, more subdued song, one of the less memorable ones on the album, but still quite pleasant to listen to. It still has Dylan singing some really surprisingly high notes. The third song, “Stay With Me”, is a highlight. This is the kind of somewhat bombastic song I associate with Frank Sinatra (not that I know especially much about his music, so that might not be an especially accurate association). Sinatra’s original version of this song has a very stirring orchestral accompaniment, to go with the rather stirring lyrics and melody. Dylan tones it down a little bit, using two electric guitarists rather than a full orchestra, and makes a more vulnerable-sounding version. I do think I probably prefer Sinatra’s version, though, just since it’s so compelling and powerful. By the way, you can listen to the song on YouTube (it’s been officially uploaded onto the site by Bob Dylan’s label to advertise the album).

The next one is “Autumn Leaves”. This was originally a French song, and it is quite famous in that original version, but Dylan sings the English translation, which is actually quite different. It’s a short song, with only 8 lines, although they are sung pretty slowly, and yet it is very powerful. As I mentioned above, it’s especially moving with an old voice singing it. Even if you are not into the songs of Sinatra’s era, you may still be familiar with this song, because Eva Cassidy released an excellent version of it.

“Why Try to Change Me Now”, which follows, is one of the more average songs on the album. It’s slow, melodically uninteresting and doesn’t really stand out very much. It is, however, one of the more interesting ones in terms of lyrics. I do quite like the line beginning the third verse: “why can’t I be more… conventional?” For Sinatra, the lyrics had a lot of personal significance, which made his own versions of the song a bit more compelling. You could certainly argue that the lyrics also apply to Dylan quite well, but I don’t think this is reflected in Dylan’s performance.

After that comes “Some Enchanted Evening”. This is a lovely romantic song, originally from the musical South Pacific. Sinatra’s 1949 recording of it is beautiful and it would have been hard for Dylan’s recording to try to compete with it. However, I think Dylan’s recording goes in a slightly different direction from Sinatra’s. Every other song on this album is rather melancholy; “Some Enchanted Evening” might seem like the sole exception. In the musical, the character who sung this song did seize the opportunity and ended up marrying his true love. But if he had never done so, that would make hearing his advice, “once you have found her, never let her go”, rather more heartbreaking. If you interpret the song this way, it fits in better with the album’s general mood.

I have to confess that the next three songs, “Full Moon and Empty Arms”, “Where Are You” and “What’ll I Do”, kind of start to blur into one, because they’re all examples of the slow, melancholy kind of song which, by now, you might be getting a bit bored of. To be honest, “Where Are You” and “What’ll I Do” are pretty miserable. It probably would have been a good idea to put something more positive in between those two.

But the final song, “That Lucky Old Sun”, is a very good way to end the album. I think it is actually the best song on the whole thing. In terms of its mood, this is one of those songs that has really depressing subject matter, but somehow listening to it makes you feel good anyway. I mean, it’s basically about someone who is tired of life and just longs to die. That’s a lot more gloomy than “Where Are You”, which is just about a lonely person. But the composition of “That Lucky Old Sun” gives it a lot of strength and power, making it less of a dirge. It has a kind of spiritual feel, too; in terms of its theme it’s very similar to “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”. There are lots of stirring high notes, and you might think Dylan would have difficulty reaching them, but he pulls it off. It’s his most amazing vocal performance on the whole album, for sure.

(The best version of “That Lucky Old Sun”, though, is probably Ray Charles’s. I don’t think “Shadows in the Night” is on Spotify yet, so I haven’t been able to link you many of the songs in this post. I’ll give you a link to Ray Charles’s version, just because it really deserves to be heard. Dylan’s version has a fair few differences from this, though, so check it out anyway!)

So overall, “Shadows in the Night” has been a really pleasant surprise. One thing I didn’t mention, although you probably gathered it from the song descriptions, is that it’s kind of a downer of an album, but that’s pretty much what you expect from modern Bob Dylan albums. There are different ways music can be downbeat, anyway—it’s not the cringy, self-absorbed kind of downbeat music. But if you prefer more upbeat music you may find it hard to like this album. If you find yourself unable to take old-fashioned music seriously, you’re probably not going to like the album very much either. And, of course, those who are new to Bob Dylan will need to have an open mind with regards to his voice; it’s probably best if you are already familiar with his music. With these caveats, I recommend that you give the album a listen. If you like what it’s doing, you’ll find that it’s good at what it does.

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