Perhaps the only artist not to have been directly inspired in some way by Bob Dylan in the last 50 years, Bob Dylan often seems to have preferred taking refuge in the pre-Bob Dylan era. Who knows, maybe he just isn’t his biggest fan? Unlikely, but his output as of late has frequently been informed by the music titans who dominated before his own influence seeped into everything from the 1960s onwards. Dylan has often dipped into the pre-WWII, pre-rock ‘n’ roll classics that make up the Great American Songbook, which includes artists such as Dean Martin, Fred Astaire, and, of course, in Dylan’s words: “the mountain you have to climb” that is Frank Sinatra.
Cut live in Capitol Records’ renowned Studio B, where Sinatra himself recorded these songs once before with his five-piece touring band and a small orchestra, Dylan’s thirty-sixth studio album, Shadows in the Night, is a collection of songs that not only illustrates his adoration for his personal influencers, but also reflects in some ways the man himself. The writers of these songs may have been considerably younger than Dylan when they wrote them – ‘What’ll I Do’, for example, was written by Irving Berlin in 1923 when he was in his 30s – yet the lyrics nonetheless seem to resonate deeply with his character.
From the quiet lulling tone of ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’, which opens the album, to ‘That Lucky Old Sun’, the tenth and final song, there is a delicate, but ever-present, bluesy undercurrent. ‘Stay with Me’ heightens the melancholy mood early on, adding an air of ruefulness which carries through to ‘Autumn Leaves’. All the tracks contain a little sadness, but as far as the lyrics are concerned they’re beautifully laconic and understated. There is no wallowing in self-pity at all. The tone instead remains very classy and evocative of the period these songs are taken from. ‘Why Try to Change Me Now’ is maybe the most appropriate song for Dylan as it resonates with his own defiant attitude which he has never let go of. Indeed, some of the songs seem to fit him so well that it’s almost hard to believe he didn’t write a word of them himself. But with this absence of what many have ascribed as being his main asset, in his song writing, Dylan’s vocals instead take centre stage. And if the record does one thing right, Shadows in the Night showcases just how vital his rough, raspy voice has been to so many of his songs.
Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of ‘All Along the Watchtower’, along with several other ridiculously awesome covers of Bob Dylan songs, have perhaps contributed to the notion that his vocals are something of a weak point in much of his music. His last two LPs certainly did not change many minds in this regard. However, whether it’s down to some kind of throat yoga or eating a lot of honey (because I hear that helps), Dylan’s vocals have improved tenfold since those raucous growls of his 2012 album Tempest. His voice throughout Shadows sounds so much more relaxed and mellifluous than before. It may still be a far cry from Sinatra’s epitome-of-smooth tone, but Dylan’s delivery is nevertheless absolutely (forgive this pun) frank. Few artists have or ever will sing with the sincere emotional sensitivity that he has throughout his long, illustrious career.
With any other artist you might think of a cover album of old romantic standards like this as something of a money grab (cough cough Rod Stewart cough), but with Dylan that simply is not the case. He has put his heart and soul into revivifying these songs, his sincere love for them is made more apparent with every croaky twang of his larynx, and that is what makes the record work so well. As someone who admittedly would under normal circumstance find the likes of Sinatra as being rather too antiquated, best saved for the Christmas period, and otherwise – dare I say it – boring for their tastes, I can honestly say that it is Dylan’s perceptible ardour for this music that has made me come to really appreciate it as well.