The remarkable and often spectacular music career of Bob Dylan is now in its 55th year. That in itself is stunning. He is one of very few artists in modern music history where the term icon somehow seems inadequate. His 36th release, Shadows in the Night, is the follow up to Tempest from 2012 that arguably features some of his sharpest songwriting in years. Oddly, Shadows in the Night lacks any liner notes. I for one would like to have gained some insight as to why he chose these particular songs and what his thought process was. For that, fans will have to go online for his recent AARP interview.
Unlike many artists, Dylan has long had the luxury of recording whatever he wishes without any particular commercial concerns and in some ways, Shadows in the Night seems like an odd choice. It contains 10 songs from the Great American Songbook recorded live in the studio with no overdubs over a brief 34 minutes. It has already evoked a polarizing reaction from Dylan’s fan base with a love it or hate it reception. The truth lies somewhere in between. Although the untouchable Frank Sinatra has performed all of these tunes at some point in his career, any real connection between him and Dylan ends there, notwithstanding the album’s definite late night feel. Dylan has produced something far closer in spirit to Hank Williams or perhaps more accurately, late period Billie Holiday that seems evocative of Holiday’s Lady in Satin.
The album begins with a very promising opening track, “I’m a Fool to Want You,” one of the few career songwriting credits for Sinatra. From the outset, with its pedal steel intro, an instrument that is prominently featured throughout the album, we know full well we are hearing these songs in ways that are wholly unique. Here, Dylan delivers a heartfelt, true and honest performance of a tale of forlorn and hopeless love. Dylan lives and breathes these lyrics to such an extent, he may have just as well written them. We feel his deeply conflicted pain. On the next tune, “The Night We Called it a Day,” Dylan does an about face as it is lifeless and unremarkable. Unfortunately, this signals the quality and performance level of many of the remaining songs. The following track “Stay With Me” redeems itself quite nicely with a deep poignancy, yearning, and aching beauty. When Dylan tells us he has sinned, we know full well he has. Again, we get a definite sense of a man who is not simply singing the lyrics for he is living them, all to great effect. Dylan does a nice job with the oft-covered “Autumn Leaves.” After this point, with the exception of a passable version of “Some Enchanted Evening,” a song that is very closely identified with the film South Pacific, the album really begins to suffer. To this listener’s ears, “Why Try to Change Me Now,” Full Moon And Empty Arms,” “Where Are You?” and “What’ll I Do” all run together with little to distinguish one tune from another. The performances come across as languid, uncommitted and uninspired. The honesty and intimacy that frames the more successful tracks is lacking. The finale, “That Lucky Old Sun” is in great hands with Dylan. Here, he sounds revitalized with a gorgeously understated arrangement. With Dylan’s soulful delivery, the album ends in fine fashion indeed.
All in all, there is very uneven value here. I think it is quite likely if the song choices would have been better, Dylan would have produced a far more worthy effort. As is often the case with Dylan, this release will not gain him any new fans, but he ceased caring about that long ago. Almost any new Dylan release is a cause for celebration for his fervent and longstanding fan base. Despite its highly erratic quality, there is a bit of true gold to be found here. It’s just enough to tantalize and leave you wanting more. I’m willing to venture a guess we will get exactly that in his next release.
- I’m A Fool To Want You
- The Night We Called It A Day
- Stay With Me
- Autumn Leaves
- Why Try to Change Me Now
- Some Enchanted Evening
- Full Moon And Empty Arms
- Where Are You?
- What’ll I Do
- That Lucky Old Sun
Rating: 5 out of 10
Ian Lowell is an author who resides in Colorado. His upcoming work of non-fiction, Son of Sam Was My Catcher and Other Bronx Tales, contains an abundance of historical material, a great deal of which is about the music of the 1960s. It will be released shortly. https://www.facebook.com/SonofSamWasMyCatcherandOtherBronxTales?ref=hl
Ian Lowell’s Son of Sam Was My Catcher and other Bronx Tales is an electrifying first-hand account of growing up on the East Coast during the Rock ‘n’ Roll years. A card-carrying member of the free-spirited music-loving Greenwich Village counterculture, Lowell’s photographic memory and attention to detail makes for a fascinatingly fresh perspective on the major events of the 1960s, from JFK to Motown to Jimi. Son of Sam Was My Catcher and Other Bronx Tales is alive with the rapid-beating pulse of that decade. A rich kaleidoscope of little-known facts, outrageous opinion and dubious hearsay, this must-read memoir is entertaining, enlightening and essential reading for any history or music buffs.