Rating:Dylan does pop standards on Shadows in the Night, his 36th studio album. He’s done it before; he covered “Blue Moon” on the unfairly reviled Self Portrait, performed some of these songs in recent concert appearances and has tackled “That Lucky Old Sun” for longer than that. But this is not a standards album like Willie Nelson’s or Rod Stewart’s. Dylan has been promoting this record through an unexpected channel that provides a key to what he’s up to. He appears on the cover of the new issue of AARP The Magazine, treating readers to a solid interview and giving away copies of his new album to 50,000 subscribers. But aging boomers who have fond memories of Dylan the brash young troubadour and the Voice of his Generation will not find this a particularly comforting listen.
The title Shadows in the Night suggests “Strangers in the Night,” the Sinatra standard in which Old Blue Eyes introduced the much-mocked improv, “shoo-be-doo-be-doo.” But this isn’t Bob Dylan Is Murdering the Classics. Unlike the nostalgia trips of other rock-stars-do-standards albums, Shadows in the Night is about loss and loneliness. Its precursors are Sinatra’s romantic loser albums for Capitol like Only the Lonely and Where Are You? (from which Dylan covers four tracks, albeit one that Sinatra first recorded for Columbia). Since those albums were recorded when Sinatra’s voice was at his mature peak, there’s something else Dylan is after here.
Even more than Sinatra’s classic Capitol albums, Shadows resonates with late career, lost-my-voice albums like Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin and Chet Baker’s 1989 soundtrack to Let’s Get Lost. Those albums featured veteran artists who were audibly broken people, recording what would end up being their valedictory statement. Holiday’s and particularly Baker’s phrasing on those albums sounded not unlike a beautifully-sung dying breath. This is what Dylan is giving away to the AARP demographic that, at 73, he himself is part of: a taste of their mortality, a reminder of the loss and longing of their youth, looked back upon from what may well be the precipice of death.
Dylan’s homage to Frank Sinatra covers 10 songs originally recorded by Old Blues Eyes, from the 1951 Columbia recording “I’m a Fool to Want You” to the 1964 Reprise single “Stay with Me.” Sinatra still had his pipes when he originally recorded these, and though some would claim that Dylan never had a good voice, his voice is even more compromised now. A great singer doesn’t have to possess a beautiful voice, and when Dylan’s phrasing is on, he can be a great singer. But he’s never been known as a great interpreter, and that’s a problem when you’re paying homage to the 20th century’s greatest interpreter of popular song.
“I’m a Fool to Want You” establishes the album’s mournful tone and somber arrangements that make Donny Harron’s pedal steel guitar practically the lead instrument. Sinatra first recorded this song for Columbia records in 1951, and legend has it he stormed out of the studio an emotional wreck after the session ended, its lyric cutting too close to his then-relationship with Ava Gardner. At his best, Sinatra’s scrawny figure squeezed every bit of emotion he could out of his big pipes. But emotion is something we don’t even ask for from Dylan, and he’s not nearly as good an actor as his inspiration.
As spare as they are, the arrangements can be too busy. Dylan turns in a stronger performance on “Autumn Leaves,” but it would have worked better with just Dylan and Tony Garnier’s bowed bass. The shiny pedal steel lines and low-level guitar ripples distract from the appropriately autumnal vocal.
“Why Try to Change Me Now” is the most successful track, at a tempo that better suits the five-piece band and with lyrics that could have been tailor made for an artist who likes to mess with audience expectations: “Why can’t I be more conventional?/ People talk, people stare, so I try.” For a couple of songs, Shadows in the Night resonates with Dylan as he faces the end of a long career.
But on tracks like “The Night We Called it a Day,” Dylan’s exaggerated nasal vowels make you wonder if this album wasn’t a joke after all. The pedal steel guitar evokes a tropical feeling that works against the drama of this material. “That Lucky Old Sun” brings the album back from the land of schmaltz for a closer that comes off like one of the prison songs that he loved to borrow from. It’s a spiritual that ends with Dylan’s perhaps ominous hope that he can just “roll around Heaven all day.” It’s as if Dylan is getting ready to say goodbye—if not to the living, to audience expectations. If Shadows in the Night really delivered on its concept of loss and mortality, it would be a more depressing album than it is. These songs are not the dying breaths of a man facing his mortality, but inconsistent interpretations of an aging icon’s sense of loss and isolation. It’s a strong concept, but he doesn’t quite pull it off.