After spending the past 50-plus years mining the traditional music of what Greil Marcus has termed "old, weird America," and expanding it into the contemporary worlds of folk, rock, country, gospel and other singular hybrids thereof, on Shadows in the Night Bob Dylan
gives us his take on the Great American Songbook. Thankfully, Dylan doesn't jettison the weirdness for the trip, choosing (unlike so many other rock and pop stars) to interpret these standards in his own idiom; choosing, that is, not to prop himself in front of some large orchestra with knockoff, '50s-sounding charts, but to record the songs live with his five-piece touring band. The result is a wee- hours drift through the American psyche, one that is by turns eerie, achingly sad and warmly nostalgic, as Dylan pines for lost love, lost selves, waning life and the sentimental virtue of enduring.
Leading up to its release, the album was broadly promoted as a Frank Sinatra
"cover" albuma convenient, if imprecise, way to woo those unfamiliar with these songs. Still, it is true that all 10 tracks on this taut, 35- minute album of the dark, are, to greater or lesser extent, associated with Ol' Blue Eyes. Four of the songs, in fact, Sinatra included on his own haunting noir, Where Are You?
(Capitol, 1957). And by rendering these tunes in a dark, country manner, fueled by Donny Herron's whining, whirring pedal steel, Charlie Sexton's crisply harmonic electric guitar, Stu Kimball's chugging acoustic guitar, Tony Garnier's grounding, often bowed, bass, and George G. Receli
's light percussion (with a trio of mournful horns also blowing on a few tracks), Dylan perhaps realizes something of the aesthetic he had envisioned while trying to convince Sinatra, in his final years, to record an album of Hank Williams tunes.
Dylan's wonderfully weathered baritone is a perfect fit for this material, tracing the melodic linesfaithfully, for the most part, often with the careful articulation of one trying to maintain his composure, before wavering, stretching, leaping or plummeting into arrestingly vulnerable passageswith a full, resonant wisdom that can, without warning, turn wispy as smoke or brittle as autumn leaves.
"Stay With Me," "Full Moon and Empty Arms" and "What'll I Do" are particular standouts, aided, in part, by their relative obscuritytheir fresh canvases. But the entire album is charged by the authenticity that has always been the mark of Dylan's singing, here easily rekindling the listener's own longing and regret. Nevertheless, when "That Lucky Old Sun" rolls around, dumping us out into the waiting, laughing dawn, Dylan is able still to brush us off, get us on our feet and inspire us to take yet another, likely futile, stab at another day.