The new Bob Dylan album has arrived on our turntables this January sounding a bit like the unlikely sound-track to a film noir or Western that was never made. Featuring no self-penned songs at all by the legendary songwriter, ‘Shadows in the Night’ is instead a spooky sounding collection of covers of songs associated with Frank Sinatra, released in this, the 100th anniversary year of Sinatra’s birth.
Rather than go for big brassy famous numbers such as That’s Life, My Way, or New York New York, Bob, who is now 73, has instead opted for low-key arrangements of mostly lesser known songs such as gentle opener I’m A Fool To Want You and the two songs premiered last year, Full Moon & Empty Arms and Stay With Me. The overall affect is closer to that achieved on the standards albums of Willie Nelson (1978) and Paul McCartney (2012), subtle and quiet rather than the overt and commercial efforts of the likes of Rod Stewart or Robbie Williams.
The band is a revelation. It is Bob’s touring band and the sound is somewhere between their usual Americana sound and small-band jazz. Bob has given us plenty of rambunctious swing, blues, rock and up-tempo country music in recent years, but if he now wants to give us 35 minutes of sad low-key classics from the classic American songbook, well, who’s complaining?
Throughout the album there is gentle guitar, brushed drums, bowed bass and occasional added horns, but it is Donnie Herron’s mournful and lilting pedal steel guitar which leads most of the arrangements. This provides the platform and the foil for Bob to sing confidently and up-front, such as on the slowest version of Johnny Mercer’s Autumn Leaves you’ll ever hear, and on his staccato delivery of Stay With Me, and an unlikely but successful Some Enchanted Evening.
Bob’s vocals on this album are very measured, very deliberate, and as with the music, they are no doubt influenced by his new ‘quiet’ live set-list of 2013/2014. He obviously loves and knows this type of song deeply, both thematically and musically. We knew this from some of the covers he has chosen on the Never Ending Tour, and from his erstwhile radio programme Theme Time Radio Hour where we learned of his admiration for pre 1960s American popular music. That passion comes through on performances like his country-crooner grappling of Why Try To Change Me Now and even more so when he comes close to vocal gymnastics on Irving Berlin’s What’ll I Do.
Conventional, though, it is not. Dylan’s vocal chords were never pretty, and the ravages of time and 25 years of some very experimental singing on the Never Ending Tour strongly inform these performances. But, they are fascinating interpretations, which should please Dylan fans and will hopefully please fans of jazz and alternative song phrasing.
It’s hard to say if an album like this will sell well or send new fans to Dylan’s back catalogue, although it could possibly send people back to some of the great slow and introspective Sinatra albums of the 1950s like ‘In the Wee Small Hours’ and ‘Where Are You’ which would be no bad thing.