After the pedal steel guitar has whined its way into a bygone era, Bob Dylan’s coarse voice cuts into the song like a jagged knife: ‘I’m a Fool To Want You’ opens Shadows in the Night, his thirty-sixth studio album, and it is the closest that the singer comes to crooning.
When Columbia Records announced that Dylan would be recording an album made up entirely of Frank Sinatra covers, fans tentatively held their breath. It seemed a mismatch of artists typical of late Dylan. But Dylan sceptics will not find their usual criticism so apt on this album. Dylan takes well-known Sinatra ballads (‘Autumn Leaves’, ‘The Night We Called It a Day’) and Dylanises them. He is respectful of the original songs by staying true to their melodies – a respect that he does not have for his own work.
A song such as ‘Full Moon’ and ‘Empty Arms’, with its chugging rhythm section, sounds so characteristically Dylan that it could easily have come from Tempest, his previous self-composed album. Most of the songs on Shadows in the Night were written in the first half of the twentieth century, but take on new character in Dylan’s hands. He does away with the sweeping string sections and vast instrumentation of Sinatra records, putting his five-piece touring band in its place.
Coarse tones replace Sinatra’s smooth crooning. A muted trumpet occasionally wafts its way into the musical texture – a polite nod to Sinatra’s big band instrumentation. Sinatra records are well-polished and expertly executed, while Dylan only took three hours on each song in the studio. Shadows in the Night differs from Tempest in that the songs are more nostalgic, romantic and even brooding. Most of them adopt a first-person direct address, making it difficult to avoid viewing Dylan’s selection of ballads as autobiographical. On the album’s single, ‘Stay With Me’, Dylan sings, “I grow cold, I grow weary and I know I have sinned.” The reflective tone of such songs feels well-aged. Perhaps that is Dylan’s reason for giving the only promotional interview for Shadows in the Night to the American Association of Retired Persons.
However, this interview feels tongue-in-cheek: Dylan has achieved something new and, in its own way, fresh. He combines old songs with an aged style unfamiliar to them. With an irony that I feel Dylan appreciates, he has done something new. His sound is old – pedal steel string and bowed double bass that hark back to a pre-Dylan era, yet he uses this seasoned sound to rework the well-worn pages of the American Songbook. The product is an original combination of two different old sounds: Dylan’s musical shadow cast on the American Songbook’s night. In this Dylan has succeeded where so many of his contemporaries have failed: note Eric Clapton’s album Clapton, in which covers of songs from his childhood were as dull as his album title, or Rod Stewart’s five slashes at jazz standards in The Great American Songbook I-V.
Shadows in the Night is a genuine reworking that is more than a product of nostalgia. This album is not the rip-roaring Dylan of Tempest, but it retains its own mood and style that feels simultaneously old, new and distinctly Dylan.