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Album Review: Bob Dylan's Shadows in the Night
Dylan Croaks Sinatra
I am an unabashed Dylan fanatic, so despite some grumblings, there was no doubt as to whether or not I was going to buy Shadows in the Night. There was a sizable amount of doubt as to whether or not I would actually enjoy listening to, or even like any element of the album, but I was going to buy it, because it's a Bob Dylan album, and it needed to sit on the shelf next to the other Bob Dylan albums in my collection, and if it didn't, then it would keep me up nights. I'm one of those guys.
Why the concern, you ask? The reason for doubting the quality didn't even stem from the cover album angle. Dylan has been in covers territory before, and I thought that both Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong were excellent, highly enjoyable albums, but they were essentially folk albums, and well within Dylan's wheelhouse. Dylan doing standards, though, and with Sinatra as his template to boot?
As much as I actually enjoy Dylan's voice—and, yes, I actually do—the notion of him attempting to croon, or croak as the case may be, classic Sinatra songbook selections this late in his career seemed more than just a little ludicrous. Old Bob's finally flipped, is a thought that came to mind; oh, dear god, what has he done, was another.
Full Moon And Empty Arms
The Big Payoff
Perhaps the lesson to be learned from Shadows in the Night—above and beyond the obvious one that it is an excellent album well worth the price of admission—is that we can trust Bob. He may have made some missteps over the years (for examples, see Self Portrait, his Born Again years, the mid-eighties...), but since his re-emergence with Time Out of Mind in 1997, Dylan's recorded output has been solid at worst, and transcendent at best. In this late stage of his career, Dylan is confident, self-assured, and seemingly determined not to do anything to detract from his legacy.
Dylan's take on these classic songs is nothing short of revelatory. Each and every song, rather than tending towards tired or world-weary, sounds lived in and lived through. When the album opens up with "I'm a Fool to Want You," Dylan makes you feel each and every line—he's no longer in it, he's singing this from the other side, with all the experience and heartache he can muster (which is quite a lot). Not that anyone would ever knowingly buy this album under the impression that these songs are getting the Michael Buble treatment, but this isn't Dylan's attempt to simply croon by numbers, and Shadows in the Night is all the better for it.
As he weaves his way along the path laid out by these songs, he is very tastefully and reservedly carried along on the backs of his band. The image that is conjured up by the subtle slide guitar, bass, and shuffling drums is that of a comradely, sympathetic arm draped over Dylan's shoulders as they walk, half-drunk, half-supporting one another, on a black and white street, on a foggy night, half-heartedly smoking cigarettes. This is to say that the arrangements always compliment, never obscure.
To say that Shadows in the Night is a rewarding, worthwhile listen is an understatement. This is a stately, one of a kind album from one of the greatest songwriters of all time, that pays tribute to an era long since gone, not by trying to recreate it, but by grounding it in a present backed with experience that few have the wherewithal to realize in the recording studio. This album is best listened to in the dark, where you can let yourself be carried along, consoled, and ultimately comforted by Dylan's knowing performance.
The Night We Called It A Day
Top 5 Tracks
- "I'm a Fool to Want You"
- "Stay With Me"
- "Autumn Leaves"
- "Why Try to Change Me Now"
- "That Lucky Old Sun"
If you like Shadows in the Night, here are some other covers albums well worth a listen:
- Bryan Ferry, Dylanesque (2007)
- Mark Lanegan, Imitations (2013)
- Cat Power, The Covers Record (2000)