Shadows in The Night
by Bob Dylan 2015
I have five shelves of Bob Dylan CDs. I even bought Christmas in The Heart, which apart from that jokey YouTube video for It Must Be Santa, is truly unlistenable. I’ve been tempted to walk out of the last two live shows I attended and I wouldn’t go again, even if it was in my home town, seated and cheap. It might be the first, it won’t be the last two.
I really loved Tempest though. My favourite all-time five Dylan albums are Times They Are A-Changin’, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Desire and Street Legal. That places my taste firmly in time. I’ve enjoyed Another Self Portrait more than most other albums of the last few years, but then I liked Self Portrait too.
Shadows in The Night has arrived. I see it’s amazon’s #1 CD and #1 vinyl LP too. It’s the first Dylan album in years not to have a De Luxe edition with better booklet or bonus material. All the songs have been recorded by Frank Sinatra. It was recorded in Capitol Studio B, where Sinatra recorded his 1950s hits, though more of these songs date from Sinatra’s 40s career, and what we have is only ten out of twenty-three songs recorded at the sessions. Dylan has praised Sinatra, and he attended his funeral. I don’t think Frank ever praised Bob though.
I don’t see myself as covering these songs in any way. They’ve been covered enough. Buried in fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them.
Dan Cairns, The Sunday Times, Album of The Week
Not, Dylan insists, the Sinatra covers album many have described it as, his 36th studio album is nonetheless a set of interpretations of songs with which Ol’ Blue Eyes is indelibly associated. And guess what it’s beautiful. That increasingly unlistenable growl is nowhere to be heard … to infinitely subtle and tender accompaniment from pedal steel, double bass, brass and brushed drums, Dylan comes across like a romantic crooner, bruised in heart and jaundiced of spirit, it makes you yearn for him to sing like this more often.
Let’s start with the back sleeve photo, because I think these are carefully considered. Dylan in a white tux and bow tie, looks like a cruise ship entertainer. He’s sitting with a woman who has a mask and an ample bosom. She’s taking over that Suzy Rotolo (Freewheeling) or Sally Grossman (Bringing It All Back Home) role. They’re examining a 45 rpm single, and I can tell from the stiff sleeve that this is a Third Man Records current Sun reissue record. So why a Sun single? Sun is the polar opposite of the material on this record.
My opinion. The Great American Songbook route is getting so crowded it would be worth having a section in stores (with hopefully the original and classic versions alongside). Christmas In The Heart was a foray into the genre. Eric Clapton recently said you reach a point in life where you want to perform the songs you heard on the radio when you were a kid. In Eric’s case, and mine, that means the BBC Light Programme and lots of stuff like this album. Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Robbie Williams, Bryan Ferry all felt the same pull. In retrospect, Ringo Starr’s Sentimental Journey becomes a forerunner of the entire genre, and it had the full George Martin arrangement treatment. A surprise to me was how soul performers like Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye also felt the same pull to prove they could do this stuff before that. Diana Ross too, but I’m not sure she was a “soul performer.” Dylan has said that he was originally inspired to do a standards album by Willie Nelson’s Stardust (which I really can’t stand). But bar the four real classics, most of the songs are known particularly to Sinatra fans.
In my case the songs that leap out of these various essays in American popular music history are the songs my mum sang in the kitchen, so among Rod Stewart’s five volumes of ventures, Blue Skies is my favourite. On Shadows In The Night the ones my mum sang are Autumn Leaves and Some Enchanted Evening. They are also the best-known songs, together with What’ll I Do. A lot of it is pretty obscure for me. My mum also thought Bing Crosby a far better singer than Frank Sinatra.
Two days before its release, I saw Glenn Frey’s 2012 Great American Songbook effort After Hours in a charity shop at £1.99 and bought it. I was annoyed when I looked closer, “Some bastard’s scribbled all over the sleeve in marker pen!” I said. Then I realised the scribble read “Glenn Frey.” So autographed too. Glenn Frey takes a wider time scale (and Brian Wilson’s Caroline, No fits seamlessly in there among the classics). Glenn uses 19 violins, 5 violas, five celli (not cellos, I noted) and two bassi (rather than basses).
Bob uses his normal band, plus a couple of trombones, a French horn and trumpets … but only on a few tracks and not all together. The brass is distant and muted. The arrangements are indeed exquisite … I thought before I heard it that he was economizing again (as on live shows) with a small band, but Donny Herron on pedal steel guitar recreates an entire string section, and Tony Garnier’s double bass is often played with a bow, to stunning effect. The album is produced by Jack Frost, Bob’s usual pseudonym. The style chosen is a supper club version of 1940s country music, rather than an attempt to replicate the full orchestras, though the big surprise is how close it gets to the mood.
At last someone has shown Bob those little black liquorice pellets for Singers and Actors Throat. I used them myself for years when I had to speak to large audiences three times a day. Olbas pastilles work well. Fisherman’s friends help a bit. Manuka honey’s good. It’s taken an incredible time for him to discover you needn’t croak. Yes, he can hit the notes, and pull them out too, I found the long sustained “in vain …” on Where Are You comfortingly Dylanesque. I’m trying as I listen to get past the feeling that it’s the aural equivalent of a dog walking fifty yards on its hind legs. Do not argue about how well it’s doing it, but wonder that it can do it at all.
Dylanesque. That’s an issue for me. You see, in 1963, Bob Dylan was to my generation the anti-Sinatra writ large. Dylan was the antidote to all that narrow tied, narrow lapelled, hat-wearing “Swinging” crap. Incidentally, the “newest” song on this album Stay With Me dates from 1963, just as Dylan was taking off. He also re-did Some Enchanted Evening with Rosemary Clooney in the same year.
Rock ‘n’ roll smells phony and false. It is sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration…it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.
(Frank Sinatra 1957)
Then let’s go to 1967 when Frank recorded Life’s A Trippy Thing with his daughter, Nancy. it was an unfortunate stab at the Summer of Love. The forced (and hypocritical) lyrics are neither’s best moment. They include:
Nancy: Getting stoned on sunshine, getting high on air
Frank: Getting to it naturally, really getting there
Nancy: Getting such a high on, loving what I do
Frank: And I’m so full of happiness, I’m hooked on something new
Yes, that’s Frank Sinatra. Cigarette in one hand, whisky in the other preaching about substance abuse. This could so easily turn into “Why I loathe Frank Sinatra” (and as a person I could go on and on) and fortunately Bob eschewed My Way and New York, New York. Except I don’t loathe Frank Sinatra’s music anymore. My tastes widened, and I have been able to appreciate Sinatra’s virtues, though only in the last twenty years. Since I became middle-aged, then.
At the root of it, I don’t appreciate someone like Dylan, a major influence on my life, recording songs made famous by the Swinging Mafiosi Wannabe. I can’t get past that sentiment. I’m getting old. Bob’s older. Is this geriatric music?
I’m not going through in order. I’m starting with the most familiar songs. I’m getting circumspect now about shoving everything into iTunes. I didn’t put the whole album in for a change. I thought I’d listen two or three times first. One song went straight in after one listen though.
My favourite track immediately was the last one, That Lucky Old Sun. Horns help, but also it has enough stage musical blues feeling, just like Ol’ Man River, to suit his voice, even though it’s a 1949 fake. Back in the day, four versions competed for 1949 chart placings: Frankie Laine (#1), Vaughan Monroe (#9), Frank Sinatra (#16) and Louis Armstrong (#24). Add the string-laden recording by Ray Charles in 1962, and maybe we’re not only thinking about Sinatra’s versions.
I used iTunes and YouTube to check them out. Frankie Laine remains the most popular download (with Bob catching up, a few hours into day one). It’s strummed guitar plus horribly intrusive backing singers. Louis Armstrong’s great lead vocal has to fight a heavenly chorus too, but is the runaway 1949 winner. Vaughan Monroe has Paul Robeson and a great big stage in mind, Frank is crystal clear, but he overacts it, adding drama to the interpretation rather than letting the lyric through. Funny, the version that resonated most was The Righteous Brothers. Still got that fucking choir though. This was the point, after listening to half a dozen versions, that the Dylan quote rang so true:
They’ve been covered enough. Buried in fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them.
That’s really what he achieves with That Lucky Old Sun. As well as having a line about being wrinkled and grey, the lyric suits Bob:
Good lord above, can’t you see I’m burning? Tears in my eyes.
It’s sung like classic Dylan, squeezing every millimetre of emotion and yearning out of the lyric. It’s the closing track and truly one of his finest vocal and interpretative performances in years.
Autumn Leaves begins with a dignified and studied formality in the vocal, and stays with it. It’s an excellent example of the arrangements, with bowed bass and the exquisite pedal steel and guitar work. They end up sounding like an updated string quartet. Dylan can go aside for sunburned hair I used to know in a way that a traditionally “good” singer would not even try for, and he can whisper drift by the window and since you went away, waver a bit on red and gold, and almost but not quite over-reach himself on winter… . This is another interpretation that immediately resonated. But it’s a song I know so well. Listening to this, it most firmly struck me that he is taking a lesson from Leonard Cohen, singing softly and letting the microphone do the work.
Some Enchanted Evening by Rodgers and Hammerstein has Tony Garnier’s bass moving from bowed intro to plucked giving a stronger rhythm than most tracks. Bob finds some of the notes hard to get to, I felt, but so did my mum, so I can accept that. I don’t think he gets the lightness of phrasing on Who can explain it who can tell you why … it’s not quite comfortable. The sustained Never let her go … as it ends with is a bit “will he manage to hold it?” but he does.
What’ll I Do by Irving Berlin means I’m doing all the ones I could hum first (never been able to whistle). Sinatra did it twice, in 1947 and in 1962, though the song dates from 1923. Sinatra sings it as if an elocution teacher is standing in front of him, to a wash of strings. Dylan’s version meanders, but in all this back-to-back listening, I keep trying the Sinatra, then going back to the Dylan, and find that the aside to Sinatra has improved my appreciation of the Dylan version.
We move on to the rest of the album. Note that we’ve left Rodgers, Hammerstein, Berlin, Mercer. Dare I say we’re moving to lesser writers?
The album opens with the ominous bass start I’m A Fool To Want You, a rare Sinatra co-writing credit, in this case with Jack Wolf and Joel Herron. When I looked at the credit initially, I thought pedal steel guitarist Donny Herron had a credit. Not so, but are they related? Sinatra recorded it in 1951 with the Ray Charles Singers, and again in 1957. On the back-to-back check, Frank wins this one. It has dozens of cover versions. I’d heard it about four times through today then went to the shops. It was playing in my head, a good sign. But my brain was already re-arranging it seeking a harder and more determined backing to share a kiss that the devil has known after all. I wanted a bit of Like A Rolling Stone and Positively 4th Street, but now the singer knows that there’d come a time when I would need you. No longer the potent youth, now the needy ageing man? Take me back …
The Night We Called It A Day. How does he make this band sound like a string section? Recorded by Sinatra in 1942 and redone in 1957. I’d listened to Bob, and then sought out the Frank. I don’t think either of them nail the song for me. I hear it smarter, faster in a Noel Coward play, taken more lightly, smoother even. This is such a strong impression, and I’ve seen so many Coward / Rattigan / Maugham plays that I suspect someone has done this in a play I’ve seen and it’s subliminally imprinted. But the Bob version is growing. Both the words ‘day’ and ‘say’ get stretched to sound pure classic Dylan.
Stay With Me aka I grew old, gets the cover sticker mention on the CD, and the lyric conjures up Slow Train Comin’ (good) but also Saved (not good). The religious tone is comfortable territory for him, and sung with power too. The Sinatra version, back-to-back, is impeccable in enunciation, and in having controlled power. But Bob does pull something out of the lyric that Frank doesn’t touch.
Why try To Change Me Now is from 1952 (and Sinatra has the lachrymose strings of Percy Faith). At this point I found myself getting bored twice through the album. I’d conclude that I don’t like the song.
Full Moon and Empty Arms is another with a cover sticker mention, and it’s prominent on his website, so is it the virtual single? This has been around for months as an album trailer, so has become familiar. It’s from 1945. The constant pedal steel is wearing out its welcome for me. I long for a change of colouration. I don’t think it a good choice for a lead song. The switching back and forth is beginning to fascinate me. Sinatra is technically superior and in a different league, but Bob as ever needles away at interpretation in a completely different way. I begin to wonder if this is why Bob chose to do these songs. The thing is he has eliminated the croak, and he is working hard to hit the notes, so it’s a serious effort to do the songs justice (and the final My empty arms will be filled by you is hard to do), but he must be totally aware of the contrast in their voices, approach and interpretation. But he hasn’t rethought the songs, so the overall sound though more countrified than Sinatra was used to, is a sound Sinatra could have sung to. The approach emphasizes the contrast.
Where Are You I haven’t got a lot of Sinatra, but I do have the 1957 LP Where Are You which this opens. Frank had its doubts because he changed the title to track 2, The Night We Called It A Day. Because it was his first stereo album, it has re-recordings of both I’m A Fool To Want You and Autumn Leaves. (It’s also got I Cover The Waterfront, a more obvious song for Bob, but he is trying to go for Sinatra’s style.) I have the feeling it’s a song I’ll eventually start to skip when I listen through.
In the end, you have to ask “Why?” The arrangements are the standout aspect of the album. However, he creates a single mood and sound, and sticks to it rigidly throughout. There’s no light and shade, appropriately Shadows In The Night goes for all shade. Keeping an album in one mood is positive in many ways – you’re more likely to choose it when you want a particular feel without a jarring change. But it also becomes tedious.
The previous day I had taken Laura Marling’s I Speak Because I Can off the shelf at random, and left it on replay all day while I was writing. I’m doing that today with Bob, but I really can’t see me picking it off the shelf in a few years time and doing that. If I could only have one of the two , I’d definitely take the Laura Marling.
He manages to carry the tunes , but does he say something significant with the tunes and lyrics? The tracks where the lyrics dare be mentioned in the same breath as Dylan’s own writing are That Lucky Old Sun, Some Enchanted Evening and Autumn Leaves. They’re by far the three best known songs, and that’s because they’re the three best songs too.
With all the other famous visitors to this great American songbook, the justification is treading water between original inspiration, and making a bit of money, and putting your signature voice round unexpected stuff. But this is BOB DYLAN. So is this enough?
I’m glad I bought it. I’m glad I devoted most of a day too. I know already it won’t be in my Top Ten or even Top Twenty of the year at the end of 2015. I can’t see me playing it that often.
I’ve read the 9/10 UNCUT review and the “five star” reviews. That’s patently ludicrous. Any scale works down from the top, so five stars means as good as Sergeant Pepper, Surf’s Up, Astral Weeks, Born in the USA, Graceland, Bookends, Hejira … let alone Freewheelin’, Times They Are A-Changing, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, Blood On The Tracks, Desire, Live 1966 and (if you must) Time Out of Mind. There is no scale invented where it rubs shoulders or gets within spitting distance with any of those albums.
Three stars is generous for me.