Dylan’s latest album, Shadows in the Night, was released on February 3rd. Of course, I bought it and listened to it the very day. I had to wait almost two months to review it. Why? Simple. I had to convince myself that it was in fact as good as it sounded to me on that very first day, I had to make sure that my personal enthusiasm for anything Dylan related was not going to be an overwhelming factor in my judgement. With time, I thought, I would grow tired of it, I would have been able to see its defects. Two months later, I can say I am even more entangled with is timelessness than I was back then.
Let’s make things clear from the start: Bob Dylan is, no room for argument, among the 4-5 most important artists of the 20th century. Not the most important 4-5 songwriters, or singers, or musicians, or music performers… ‘artists’ across all disciplines… he’s up there, even when taking in consideration the myriad of filmmakers, poets, novelists, painters, dancers, photographers, etc. who made a significant mark on humanity’s legacy across the 1900-1999 period. You may not like him, his music, his public persona, but you cannot deny this basic fact: very few, in their own artistic discipline, or across multiple media, have been able to consistently produce such a critically revered and at the same time popular body of work with heights sprinkled across over 40 years of practice.
Most great artists emerge with a bang, and, if they are lucky, they then experience a revival, as they slightly reinvent their modus operandi, or their genre, across a career. Almost nobody holds such a vast number of aces from very different, scattered, time-spanning decks of cards like he does: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1962), and The Times They are a-Changin’ (1963) in the folk revival, civil rights arena of the early 60s, Bringing it All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966) in the amphetamine-paced modernist mid-60s, John Wesley Harding (1968), Nashville Skyline (1969), and The Basement Tapes (1975) in the crystallization of roots music into the Americana genre and the foundation of country-rock, Blood on the Tracks (1974), and Desire (1975) in the eruption of Dylan emulating singer-songwriters of the 1970s, Oh Mercy (19870), and Time Out of Mind (1997) in the crepuscular blues tainted New Orleans sound-scapes of Daniel Lanois, Modern Times (2006), and Tempest (2012) in the context of the nostalgia driven balladry of the new recession. And scattered among all of these decade defining albums, a series of gem songs that almost defy categorization: spaghetti-western meets the Book of the Apocalypse (‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’)? Sir Walter Scott meets Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band (‘Changing of the Guards’)? Early Sam Cooke meets David Lynch (‘Blind Willie McTell’)?
Successful artists would kill to have only one of these achievements pinned on their blazers. Singer songwriters we rightfully acknowledge in the Olympus of the Greatest for their longevity and versatility, like Neil Young, have been essentially able to reach great heights in two or three separate peaks in their career by alternating between two modes (drowsy heavy rock with Crazy Horse and acoustic bucolic country-balladry a la Harvest). Pretty much no one has been able to reinvent himself so often and be so good at it as Dylan has. By comparison, even someone as eclectic as Pier Paolo Pasolini or Prince, has been journeying on a pretty much straight line.
Almost all of this happened in the context of an immensely talented singer-songwriter, born Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1941, restlessly challenging his gift by measuring it against different strands of American ‘roots’ music, such as folk, 1950s rock and roll, country and western, even soul and gospel (Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love), the blues, bluegrass, and enriching these forms with biblical, symbolist, and beat poetry, in turn planting the seeds for new genres like punk (‘Maggie’s Farm’, ‘From a Buick 6′) and hip hop (all of the modernist takes on the tradition of talkin’ blues in the folk revival albums, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’). With Shadows in the Nights, Dylan, aged 73, disrupted even these very broad parameters.
What is Bob Dylan known for? Being an excellent songwriter with an extremely unconventional, some may say disturbingly unappealing, voice. What does he do? He records an album of covers (not one song written by him) of songs made famous by what is regarded to be the most conventionally beautiful male voice (Frank Sinatra’s), a song book associated with spectacle, elaborate productions, high society, the opposite of ‘roots’. Result? Quite simply, he kicks ass at it. If we already liked him, it may have taken us two months to make sure it was for real, if we didn’t like him it may have taken us some lip-biting to admit it, but he kicks ass at it. Sure, Dylan happened to celebrate Frank Sinatra for his 80th birthday by playing ‘Restless Farewell’, his own folk-revival dated ‘My Way’. And in recent years, he’s been doing some crooning on some of his own compositions such as ‘Bye and bye’ and ‘Moonlight’ (from Love and Theft), ‘Beyond the Horizon’ (Modern Times). He even covered a Dean Martin track for the Sopranos soundtrack (‘Return to Me’)! But a full album of Frank Sinatra covers is quite a left turn, considering that, even more than Elvis, Sinatra quintessentially represents everything that a Bob Dylan audience member from 1961 to 1977 despised.
Nonetheless, it’s easy to see where Dylan finds the appeal in Sinatra’s balladry. Shadows in the Night opens with ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’, a lover’s lament for his own incapability to leave, despite being aware of the loved one’s treacherousness. Thematically, this is the territory of Hank Williams’ ‘You Win Again’. And when Dylan hits the ‘time and time again, I said I’d leave you’ bridge, he could be easily referring to a number of love/hate statement songs in which he professed that it was all over with her (‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’, ‘Positively 4th Street’, ‘Idiot Wind’), just to find himself back at square one, unable to go on without her (‘Isis’, ‘Love Sick’, ‘Life is Hard’, etc.)
And what’s more dylanesque than ‘The Night We Called It a Day’, i.e. singing a full song about the fact that there is nothing left to say about something? This is the same rhetorical maneuver that ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ (‘It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why’, he says while wondering in song), ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ (‘there ain’t no place I’m going to’, he sings while begging to be taken some place), and ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ (‘there is nothing you can send back to me’, except the items listed up front in the song title) are made of.
Yet, despite these linkages, Dylan swiftly and bravely steps in conventional, but for him very unexplored, territories of balladry: I mean, Jacques Prevert (‘Autumn Leaves’), Irving Berlin (‘What’ll I Do’)! And musically speaking too, the trumpet, French horns, the trombone! Instruments we rarely think about when we talk about the minimalism of Dylan albums, his ‘couple of takes max’ approach to recording, yet he makes fit so well with the bluesy playing style of long term collaborators Charlie Sexton (guitar) and Tony Garnier (bass guitar). But most of all, the singing: in Shadows in the Night Dylan, the quintessential awkward performer, sings in tune complex melodies, all the way from the first line of the opening track to the last note of ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ (when he goes out of tune on the last sustained word of the last verse, to remind you that this, after all, is a Bob Dylan record), like he had only done (on much simpler tunes) on Nashville Skyline over the course of his entire career. But that was still a young Dylan: the mood effect here, with 73 year old blues ridden vocal chords chasing Sinatra’s sonic subtleties, is completely different. On the vocal level, ‘Why Try to Change Me Now’ is one of the most remarkable Dylan takes ever.
Which takes us to another evolution of Dylan, the record producer. Just like Robert Allen Zimmerman invented Bob Dylan circa 1959, Bob Dylan invented Jack Frost, his record producing alter ego, in 2001 with the publication of Love and Theft, claiming that no one before this new, ethereal sound engineer, had figured out how to properly record his voice. Back then, this statement was received as a spiteful one, a gratuitous remark against Daniel Lanois, a producer Dylan did not get along with, who was often referred to by music critics as the savior who single-handedly pulled out of Dylan’s confused and at times controversial approach to recording albums (leaving ‘Blind Willie McTell’ off of Infidels, really Bob?) his only two masterpieces in two decades (Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind). Yet Dylan was right. Considering what little vocal extension he’s got left to work with, with the exception of Together Through Life (2009), the “Jack Frost produced” albums are arguably the ones in which his voice sounds best.
In 2008, the documentary Down the Tracks: the Music that Influenced Bob Dylan was released in DVD. As broad as the spectrum of sources for Dylan’s inspiration cited in that film is, Shadows in the Night defies pretty much every statement made by the interviewees during the making of that recent documentary. If 2009’s Christmas in the Heart could be regarded as a divertissment delivered for philanthropic purposes, Shadows in the Night occupies a legitimate spot in Dylan’s oeuvre, at least as much as 1993’s World Gone Wrong, a collection of folk roots covers, does and, once again brilliantly and unexpectedly, redefines it.