Review essay: Bob Dylan, “Shadows in the Night.” Release date: February 3, 2015. Produced by Jack Frost. Columbia Records.
In his new record “Shadows in the Night,” Bob Dylan covers a collection of pop standards drawn from the Sinatra catalog. It’s not the first time Dylan has released a record entirely of other people’s songs. His 1992 album “Good as I Been to You” gives brilliant new life to folk standards like “Sittin’ on Top of the World” and the improbable “Froggie Went a-Courting.” I expected him to do the same for the Sinatra repertoire in “Shadows in the Night.” This should have been a remarkable record. Instead, it’s unlistenable.
In most pop music, songs are merely manifestations of the singer’s ego, platforms for exhibiting the singer’s musical talent. The song is a palimpsest for each new singer’s signature: Look at me, listen to how well I sing this song. Countless beautiful songs have been desecrated by pop vocalists who think they’re improving a song by subjecting it to voices that are tonally perfect, full of passion, and without a soul. The songs are all ego.
It has never been that way with Dylan. I hear a lot of people dismiss his singing as bad, but that’s to judge his singing by standards that are alien to what he’s doing — like judging Ray Charles by standards for Luciano Pavarotti, or vice versa. Dylan’s singing is expressive in ways few others can match. He can put a spin on a word as it leaves his lips that turns the lyric into poetry. And no one else can do that with a Dylan song. (Well, almost no one. Hendrix does it, of course; the Band does it with “When I Paint my Masterpiece,” but they almost don’t count; and Richie Havens finds in “Just Like a Woman” a dark sexuality that Dylan himself missed.)
Dylan’s singing has never been about himself. And this is what distinguishes him from most of the pop crowd. When Dylan sings, whether it’s his own song or someone else’s, it’s never about mere vocal virtuosity.
It’s not even about the song. The song is always in play. In concert, Dylan keeps changing his own songs—the lyrics, the rhythms, sometimes even the melodies. A song comes at you from a whole new direction as Dylan searches again for the heart of whatever loveliness or ugliness or just plain weirdness generated the song in the first place.
Even with someone else’s song, you can hear Dylan working to get at what the song is about. Dylan’s not so much a singer as an archaeologist, digging around in the song to find its heart, searching for that thing that — as Dylan says of Petrarch’s poetry — makes the song sound like it was written in your soul.
What’s distressing about “Shadows in the Night” is how far Dylan seems from all that. He’s a mere crooner here, turning out something like the official “BOB DYLAN” versions of Sinatra’s hits. Dylan does one of my favorite songs, Irving Berlin’s 1924 hit, What’ll I Do? — a hit revived for my generation by Harry Nillson’s beautiful rendition in “A Little Touch of Schmillson in the Night.” I couldn’t wait to hear Dylan’s.
It’s terrible. His voice is off-kilter and off-key. You can hear him trying to “sing” the song instead of trying to find its reasons. (If you want to hear a poet do this song, listen to Nillson. Or to Willie Nelson: Willie finds in the song the kind of nostalgia that paralyzes you and leaves you sitting in an empty barroom staring into your beer.)
There’s one song on the new record that Dylan has wrestled with twice before, the 1949 Frankie Laine hit “That Lucky Old Sun.” He performed this lovely song in concert with Tom Petty in 1985 and turned it into a bitter complaint, resentful and struggling for relief. He did the song again in Madison in 1991, this time singing it alone and with the wistful defeat of an older man who realizes that there’s only one way out.
Those tussles are not completely lost on him here, but he has given up trying to find the song. He holds an understanding of the song at arm’s length to … to do what exactly? I don’t know what he thinks he’s doing. Pinning it on the wall and labelling it “BOB DYLAN’S VERSION,” I suppose.
I have been a Dylan fan since 1965 when “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone” first drifted over to New Jersey on the airwaves from New York City. In my mind, being alive in the time of Bob Dylan is surely what it must have been like to be alive in the time of Shakespeare. Dylan’s not just the greatest singer in rock & roll; he’s our greatest living poet.
But on this record he sounds like a mere vocalist, some pathetic hopeful waiting backstage to audition for American Idol.
• Jim Hale can be reached through his website at www.jimhalewriting.com.