BOB DYLAN: SHADOWS IN THE NIGHT (2015)
1) I'm A Fool To Want You; 2) The Night We Called It A Day; 3) Stay With Me; 4) Autumn Leaves; 5) Why Try To Change Me Now; 6) Some Enchanted Evening; 7) Full Moon And Empty Arms; 8) Where Are You?; 9) What'll I Do; 10) That Lucky Old Sun.
It's really been a long time — these days, the Bobster is nowhere near such an intense presence in people's minds as he was in 1970, when the appearance of Self-Portrait was a weird shock not just for Greil Marcus, but also for millions of followers of the Verbose Curly One. In 2015, many of these original followers are already dead, and those who are not rarely make their voices heard, not to mention that they have been patiently taught, through more than five decades, that you do not bother His Bobness with anything as trivially pitiable as «expectations» — each new album may be freely judged on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, but the man just will not be chained by your demands and predictions, so do not even try.
Since we are all well used to it, and since we also all know that you do not ignore a new Bob Dylan album like you can allow yourself to ignore, say, a new Kings Of Leon album, it is not particularly surprising that Shadows In The Night shot high up in the charts (even all the way to No. 1 in the UK), nor is it particularly surprising that the response to it has been rather limp. A record like this in 1970 would have made people scream — a few renegades would be loving it, most of the others would be hating it even more viciously than Self-Portrait. Today, most of us will probably find ourselves... mildly curious about it. Which is not the fault of us, or the fault of Bob Dylan, or the fault of the music industry, but is simply due to the changing ways of the world.
Objective facts, in brief: The record consists of 10 songs, whose overall running length barely exceeds half an hour. All the songs are covers from the Songbook, all had been, at one time or another, performed by Frank Sinatra, most had been encountered on a string of his «melancholic period» albums from the late Fifties and early Sixties. Everything has been recorded with a 12-piece band in the «midnight country» stylistics (echoey guitars, nocturnal pedal steel reverberations, quietly subdued, almost unnoticeable horns), and, most interesting of all, everything has been sung — almost crooned — by Bob in the cleanest, smoothest voice we've heard from him in ages; in fact, not once ever since he'd clearly developed his trademark «old» rasp-and-gurgle.
This last point is important, since it clearly parallels Dylan's vocal reinvention of 1969 with Nashville Skyline (the alleged «non-smoking» voice that had nothing to do with smoking and everything with confounding expectations). This time, he is not that capable — some of that rasp and gurgle has definitely set up for good — but capable enough to make it clear that the near-evil death rattle of his last few albums was just another of his impersonating acts. He never was a Sinatra at 20, let alone at 75, but he understands well enough that you cannot sing ʽFull Moon And Empty Armsʼ with the same voice with which you sing ʽDuquesne Whistleʼ, unless you want your album to be a parody, and Bob Dylan ain't no cheap «parodist».
One thing I do not wish to discuss at all is how well Dylan «understands» these songs, or whether he is able to offer his own «artistic interpretations», capturing their lyricism, emotionality, conveying the right feeling of loneliness and despair, etc. etc. Above and beyond everything else, this is just a gesture of freedom — never mind his age, never mind the current century number, never mind that fifty years ago, a young Dylan probably wouldn't want to be caught dead trying to cover a Sinatra song, never mind that even the «gloomy» aspect of these tunes still sounds excessively mannered and polite next to the much more genuine-looking gloom of the preceding Tempest. This is a gesture, and all I have to say is that, accompanying this gesture, Bob does manage to get a good sound from his band (with Donnie Heron's pedal steel guitar as the lead instrument throughout), and that I was kinda happy to hear him sing like that — after all, not everybody can boast the honor of adding yet another vocal style of one's own to an already large bank, at the ripe age of 75.
At the same time, I also can't help thinking that this «gesture of freedom» comes with its own irony — back in the 1980s and early 1990s, when Dylan was severely out of the state of commercial grace, people were too busy digging the new musical sounds of those decades to pay much attention to an old fogey, regardless of whether his albums were really bad (like Down In The Groove) or really good (like Good As I Been To You). Now, in 2015, Dylan releases a short throwaway album of Sinatra covers — and not only does it not pass unnoticed, but it actually sells, charts, and gets positive reviews, when most of those people should really be busy doing other things. If you ask me, this is neither a good nor a bad sign — it just shows that these days, there are no expectations, not just from Dylan but from anyone, and in these conditions, an album of Dylan covering Sinatra is just as potentially welcome as an album of B. B. King covering Friedrich Nietzsche, and both of them are as potentially welcome as anything released by anybody in the last five years or so. Everything is so goddamn relative these days, with the sole exception of "that lucky old sun — got nothin' to do but roll 'round heaven all day", which is sort of a slightly consolatory conclusion here, some stable point of reference to get us by.
As a stand-alone record, Shadows In The Night is too short, too slight, and too monotonous to deserve any recommendation. But as another quirky pit stop on this man's race to nowhere in particular, it should definitely earn its thumbs up — if only because it got me thinking again on all these odd issues of quality, relevance, artist-vs.-public, and the general and special theory of relativity as filtered through the incomprehensible mind of the Einstein of popular music.