There’s been a lot written about Bob Dylan’s new album of songs sung by Frank Sinatra, Shadows in the Night. People seem to love it or hate it, and I can’t understand why. I think it’s a masterpiece.
I’ve listened to Shadows more than any new Dylan album since Time Out of Mind. I play it over and over and it just blows my mind. So incredibly soulful. Heartfelt. Melancholy. The songs (most of which I didn’t know) are all so great. The inventive arrangements, just guitars, bass, light drums and occasional horns, with steel guitar as the lead instrument. And incredibly recorded by the great Al Schmidt. Live in the studio, with no overdubs.
Bob’s singing better than he has in years. Decades in fact. Yes, his voice breaks occasionally as he reaches for a note, but he’s singing as soulfully as ever. It’s a late night record. One friend said it required “active listening”. Not made for driving or playing while you’re doing something else. It’s an album to sit down and listen to. My wife and I play it constantly, different songs stuck in our heads at different times. We’ve bought 15 copies to give to friends.
Admittedly it’s not for everyone. I’m not a big Sinatra fan; I like some of his work and some I’m ambivalent about. But the songs Dylan has chosen, mostly from the 40’s and 50’s, I love. I have friends, thought, who see Sinatra as the enemy of rock, and can’t stomach an album of Bob “paying tribute” to him. Others can’t understand why a writer as great as Dylan would do a covers album of “old” chestnuts like these. To me, it’s just Bob. Inscrutable as always. Like the photo on the back cover, of Bob holding a Sun Records (Elvis) 45, with a woman wearing a mask. Sinatra and his then wife, Mia Farrow, were pictured wearing masks at Truman Capote’s “Black and White” ball. What does it all mean? Who cares?
It’s been an amazing year-and-a-half for Dylan fans. Two incredible Bootleg Series Box Sets–Another Self Portrait and The Basement Tapes Complete, a great tour, Shadows in the Night, Dylan’s first interview in 3 years in the AARP Magazine (that’s right, the American Association of Retired People), probably the most straight-ahead interview he’s ever given. Then the remarkable and unprecedented speech he gave at the Grammy Tribute–really the only speech of length he’s ever given. And then–unbelievably–a follow up interview, clarifying some of the things he’d said in the speech, posted on his website. Again, being completely up front and straightforward. And the hidden gem of Daniel Lanois’s interview with the Vancouver Sun. Lanois tells of how Dylan visited him and talked of music when he was growing up.
“He spoke for an hour and a half on how, as a kid, you couldn’t even get pictures of anybody. You might get a record but you didn’t know what they looked like. So there was a lot of mystery associated with the work at the time. As far as hearing live music, he only heard a couple of shows a year, like the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra might come through.
“But the music he did hear really touched him and he felt that a lot of that music was written not only by great professional songwriters at the time, but a lot of it was written from the heart, from the wartime, and people just pining for a lover. He felt there was a lot of spirit in that music. He felt there was a kind of beauty, a sacred ground for him.
“After having said all that, we then listened to the music and I felt everything that he talked about. For one of America’s great writers to say, ‘I’m not gonna write a song. I’m gonna pay homage to what shook me as young boy,’ I thought was very graceful and dignified.”
Bob Dylan certainly has nothing to prove. He’s reinvented music many times. The songs he’s written and the records he’s made will outlive us all. And at 73, he’s still making challenging music, speaking his mind, making provocative visual art, and bringing a lot of joy to the world. Who could ask for anything more.
If you don’t have Shadows in the Night, get it.
(During the Shadows sessions, Dylan recorded another album’s worth of Sinatra songs. I very much hope he decides to release it.)