Shadows In The Night
Bob Dylan’s new album, pre-rock’n’roll covers all connected, way one or another, to Frank Sinatra, might seem improbable, silly, a challenge to the apparent folly that was his Christmas album, but Dylan’s long been mining the past. In fact we need to go back more than 20 years now to find Bob wrestling with anything attempting to sound of its time, for although the accepted turning point (and high-water mark in this phase of Dylan’s career) is Time Out of Mind it’s worth remembering the pair of folk/blues covers albums that re-enthused Dylan, that got him back on track – helped set up this latest character he’s been playing (for almost too long now).
Shadows In The Night is his best work since Time Out of Mind (perhaps I should qualify that by saying I loved Christmas In The Heart. Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t – but it did more for me than any of the other post-Time albums. At least it attempted to be its own thing, those other albums only work because we’ve all heard and loved Time Out of Mind). Shadows might be written off as being a cash-grab, an aim at the nostalgia market as offered recently by everyone from Rod Stewart (ad nauseum) through Michael Buble, Harry Connick Jr, Robbie Williams and a bunch of others – most of them setting the faders to snooze. But in fact it deserves to stand alongside Willie Nelson’s Stardust – one of the most successful re-imaginings of the Great American Songbook.
Like Willie with his collection, Bob cares about these songs. He knew them already, knows them, has carried them with him – you can hear that in his performance. And as the debate continues to roll around as to whether he can sing – or could ever sing – once again we hear Dylan’s voice as instrument. Remember how no one gave a shit, for the longest time, and then Time Out of Mind’s Lovesick announced a fearsome new growl. Then that just became a parody of itself slowly, surely across Love & Theft, Modern Times, Together Through Life and Tempest. Well now we’re back to the voice actually meaning something – and what better way to convey the pain, in the true meaning of the word nostalgia, of these old, sad love songs than with a voice that’s pained to the point of bleating, that aches and croaks and groans and just makes it, sometimes doesn’t.
Also to be applauded – maybe even the main reason to hear this (beyond the songs themselves) is for the arrangements, the treatments, the players. Tony Garnier’s proudly bowed bass on Why Try To Change Me Now, the muted trumpet, trombone and French horn that only ever peek in to get a glimpse of the tunes, and – most importantly – Donnie Herron’s starring role with the pedal steel. He’s Ry Cooder, Daniel Lanois and Bill Frisell all at once. He’s so close to being the star of this show – were it not for Dylan sounding more important, agile and interested than he has in a decade, were it not for an impeccably selected list of songs – statements all of them, weary resignations sometimes, unsent love letters, docile declarations, but head-held-high realisations for the most part. There might be a scuff of the shoe here and there but that’s the first footstep in an attempt to carry on, to straighten the gait, try a new path.
Here Dylan offers a new path – it’s far more important and interesting to hear him in this realm than to have him circling back around ideas (again), almost plagiaristic, almost always sent down the line, phoned in. Here you feel like he’s in the room with you – close to the mic, crooning for his supper, no, for something far more nourishing and crucial than that, for dignity.
It’s some strange masterpiece – certainly a masterstroke, he’s taken standards and placed them in the ether, they hover now, ghostlike, otherworldly. Resplendent. So far from perfection, but that’s what makes them so close to perfect.