Bob Dylan upends expectations once again with his 'Shadows in the Night' collection of American standards
Call them standards if you must — imagine dusty old classics of the so-called Great American Songbook. But as interpreted by Bob Dylan, more accurate is to consider the entirety of "Shadows in the Night" as a gathering of meditations, or a booklet of hymns, or a selection of reveries.
Ten songs, 34 minutes, a soaring lifetime's worth of emotion conveyed with the fearlessness of a cliff diver spinning flips and risking belly flops in the open air — that's Dylan and his band on the graceful, often breathtaking "Shadows." The record comes out Feb. 3.
Strikingly unadorned and as emotionally raw as anything in the artist's canon, Dylan's new studio album is rich with moaning pedal steel lines and tonal whispers that drift in and out of measures. Guided by bassist Tony Garnier's liquid lines, "Shadows" is an exercise in precision, each syllable essential, each measure evenly weighted. Absent are piano, overdubs, all but the most minimal percussion or any lyric written by Dylan himself. And it's as slow as molasses.
Rather, for "Shadows," the 73-year-old artist gathered his longtime band into Studio A at Capitol Studios in Hollywood to celebrate the artfully penned lyric and melody. Resurrecting works, many obscure, written or cowritten in the decades between the 1920s and '60s by composers including Rodgers & Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Matt Dennis & Tom Adair, Frank Sinatra and Buddy Kaye, the album is a celebration of the craft and enduring power of a seamless ballad.
A random selection of lines tells the story: Where is my happy ending? Where are you? Since you went away the days grow long. Full moon and empty arms. I'm a fool to love you. Take me back, I need you. What'll I do when you are far away and I am blue? I'm sentimental, so I walk in the rain. I've got some habits even I can't explain.
Songs of lovers gone, of vanishing emotions, of fading years and stubborn habits, of isolation, unanswered prayers and never-ending hope — you can feel the emptiness. The studio comfortably fits 50 musicians, but this session was tight: Dylan circled by the five who tour with him: Garnier, Stu Kimball (rhythm guitar), Donnie Herron (pedal steel, lap steel), Charlie Sexton (lead guitar) and George Receli (drums, percussion). The occasional muted brass section washes through.
Recording the songs in the order in which they appear on the album, the artist didn't even use headphones to monitor the mix. Rather, he listened to the experts around him, spiriting intimate takes on songs about autumn leaves, enchanted evenings and an ambivalent sun spinning around. So intimate is the recording that vague hints of Dylan's breath can be heard at key moments. The occasional shuffle of a lyric sheet. A little inhale at the end of a lap steel line during "What'll I Do."
The result is akin to Willie Nelson's "Stardust," Chet Baker's late-period "Let's Get Lost" recordings or Jimmy Scott's miraculous post-retirement comeback, "All the Way." If there's a connector, it's that all the songs on "Shadows" were interpreted at one time or another by Frank Sinatra. But this certainly isn't a tribute per se to that swinging stylist.
That's a relief, as Dylan is obviously no Sinatra. His voice raw, pitchy and quivering, Dylan croons his way through elegantly crafted songs with seeming disinterest in flawless takes or perfect pitch. Yet it's profound, thematically devastating and so well curated as to feel essential.
"Shadows in the Night" is an album that's best appreciated when heard with intention, while sitting still, with volume and focus. It's Dylan upending expectations once again, another left turn in a career filled with them, sharing his wisdom and defining himself through the lines of others. He's done that both as a historian and a thief of American music, playing with context and blurring intentions in innumerable songs.
In that sense, the album's closest companions in his repertoire are two equally intimate albums of cover songs from the early '90s that helped further define him, "Good as I Been to You" and "World Gone Wrong." Those too were minimalist Dylan — just him and guitar. They featured the artist's takes on a different brand of American song: haggard old blues songs and murder ballads. Both explored love and death through songs of violent betrayal. Then in his early 50s, Dylan still burned with feral passion, singing of "blood in my eyes" for a lover, of a life cut too short in "Delia." For "Shadows," that passion is supplanted with equanimity and hard-earned wisdom.
In fact, if there's an underlying philosophy to "Shadows," Dylan hints at it in his only interview in regards to the record. Strategically given to AARP magazine, he offered thoughts on aging and creative expression: "Passion is a young man's game," he said. "Young people can be passionate. Older people gotta be more wise. I mean, you're around awhile, you leave certain things to the young. Don't try to act like you're young. You could really hurt yourself."
Bob Dylan has a new album coming out Feb. 3, "Shadows in the Night," a collection of pop songs about romance, heartbreak and other existential themes written by other songwriters.
But whatever you call this labor-of-love project, there's one thing Bob Dylan does not want you to call it: his "Sinatra covers album."
These are old songs, written between the early 1920s and the early 1960s, some of which have become bona fide jazz standards ("Autumn Leaves"), others of which were minor hits when they were first recorded ("Full Moon and Empty Arms"), and there's even the odd gem ("Stay With Me") that has been overlooked by audiences since its first appearance on an obscure single.
All these songs have one thing in common: They were recorded by Frank Sinatra at some point (in some cases, several points) in his career.
"I don't see myself as covering these songs in any way," Dylan said in a statement last December. "They've been covered enough. Buried, as a matter a fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day."
In a way, Dylan is treating the massive Sinatra catalog as an open bazaar from where he has decided to rearrange and reinterpret specific areas to create a new, wholly Dylanesque work. It's the same process he applied to the folk standard canon in his first album in 1961 and the kind of artistic practice he has continued in his forays into fine art, where he works in the same appropriation and resignification field as artists like Richard Prince.
"In folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition," he told Rolling Stone magazine in 2012, speaking about his use of lines from Civil War poet Henry Timrod and others in some of his recent songs. "As far as [...] Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who's been reading him lately? And who's pushed him to the forefront? Who's been making you read him?"
The same could be said of the following Sinatra-related songs, which will surely be given new life into the 21st century by Dylan's selection process:
"I'm a Fool to Want You" (Sinatra, Wolf, Herron): First recorded by Sinatra in 1951, with an arrangement by Axel Stordahl, in New York for Columbia Records. It was B-side to novelty single "Mama Will Bark" (with Dagmar, a busty chorus girl and early TV starlet). It's a rare songwriting credit for Sinatra, who's much better known as an interpreter of others' material. "Frank changed part of the lyric, and made it say what he felt when he was doing it," explained cowriter Joel Herron in the book "Frank Sinatra: An American Legend." "We said, 'He's gotta be on this song!' and we invited him as cowriter." At the time the singer had left his first wife Nancy to be together with Ava Gardner, whom he was hoping to marry after his divorce had been finalized. He recorded a second version in 1957 in Hollywood at the legendary Capitol Tower, this time arranged by Gordon Jenkins. It was released on "Where Are You?," his 1957 album of "suicide songs" (Sinatra's term for his concept albums about masculine loneliness) released by Capitol. In fact, four out of 10 songs on Dylan's "Shadows in the Night," also recorded in Hollywood's Capitol Tower, were songs Sinatra recorded for "Where Are You?" After Sinatra's recording, "I'm a Fool to Want You" became a popular song with other interpreters, and it was also recorded by Billie Holiday (for 1958's "Lady in Satin," a Sinatra favorite), Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstine, Chet Baker, Peggy Lee, Tom Jones, Elvis Costello and many others.
"The Night We Called It a Day" (Dennis, Adair): Originally published in 1941, Sinatra also recorded this in 1957 at the Capitol Tower for "Where Are You?," arranged by Gordon Jenkins. There are other notable pop versions by Chet Baker, June Christy and Doris Day, and a great jazz arrangement by Milt Jackson and John Coltrane. Trivia fact: The song gives its original title to a bizarre 2003 Australian movie (also know as "All the Way") with Dennis Hopper playing Frank Sinatra and Melanie Griffith playing the singer's fourth (and final) wife, Barbara.
"Stay With Me" (Moross, Jerome): Originally known as "Stay With Me (Main Theme from 'The Cardinal')" and featured in the soundtrack of a 1963 social melodrama directed by Otto Preminger, this is the real obscure piece in the set. It came out on Sinatra's own label, Reprise, in 1964 as a single, but only stayed three weeks on the Billboard charts, peaking at an unimpressive No. 81. (It also turned up a year later on an odds-and-ends Reprise album, "Sinatra '65"). It was recorded in December 1963 at United Western Recorders in Hollywood, with Don Costa arranging and conducting. The week "Stay With Me" peaked at 81 (Feb. 1, 1964) was right in the heart of Beatlemania and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" ruled the airwaves. At the time, Dylan was between "The Times They Are-a-Changing" (which had just been released) and "Another Side of Bob Dylan." The passionate, epic "Stay With Me" wouldn't have made a strong impression on him at the time: Dylan had just embarked on a legendary, pot-fueled cross-country trip with his buddies, where he would write youth-culture classics like "Chimes of Freedom."
"Autumn Leaves" (Mercer, Kosma, Prevert): Yet another song recorded by Sinatra for "Where Are You?" in 1957 at Capitol with arrangements by Gordon Jenkins, in the same session as "The Night We Called It a Day." "Autumn Leaves," a jazz standard, was originally written in 1945 in France by Hungarian composer Joseph Kosma and poet Jacques Prevert as "Les Feuilles Mortes" ("Dead Leaves"). Sublime lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote English words for it in 1947. There are many, many versions of this song, so we'll just note a few: Jo Stafford's big pop hit, an unusual version in Japanese by Nat King Cole, bilingual versions in French and English by Edith Piaf (1950), and Iggy Pop's 2009 cover for his strange Francophile project "Préliminaires." Jerry Lee Lewis, strangely enough given his manic persona, has had a moving version of "Autumn Leaves" as part of his extensive repertoire for decades (there's a YouTube video of Lewis performing the song in 1971).
"Why Try to Change Me Now" (Coleman, McCarthy): Sinatra recorded this twice. The first version, from 1952 (arranged by Percy Faith), was his last recording for Columbia Records and many interpreted the lyrics as a kiss-off to the company. The second recording is from 1959's "No One Cares," another Jenkins-arranged album of "suicide songs" and a thematic sequel of sorts to Dylan favorite "Where Are You?" The song was cowritten by Broadway legend Cy Coleman, of "Sweet Charity" fame. An outstanding modern version was recorded by Fiona Apple for "The Best Is Yet to Come" a 2009 multi-artist tribute to Coleman. Check out the live version at L.A.'s Largo.
"Some Enchanted Evening" (Rodgers and Hammerstein): One of the showstoppers from 1949's hit musical "South Pacific," of course, Sinatra recorded it three times, first when the song was fresh, for a 1949 Columbia single arranged by Axel Stordahl, which didn't sell as well as contemporary versions by Perry Como and Bing Crosby. Sinatra rerecorded it in 1963 with Nelson Riddle as part of the "Reprised Musical Repertory Theater" series of albums based on Broadway musicals that he recorded with showbiz friends. He revived it in the autumn of his years for the H.B. Barnum-led 1967 sessions for "The World We Knew." Other versions? Take your pick, as it's been done by everyone from Art Garfunkel to Harry Connick Jr. to any number of sentimental karaoke drunks around the world.
"Full Moon and Empty Arms" (Rachmaninoff, Kaye and Mossman): Yes, Rachmaninoff as in the famous Russian composer, from whose Piano Concerto No. 2 Kaye and Mossman adapted the melody in 1945. Sinatra had a minor hit on Columbia with it, and it was later done by Eddie Fisher and Sarah Vaughan. It was the track chosen by Dylan to give a sneak peek into the project back in May 2014.
"Where Are You?" (Adamson, McHugh): The title song from 1957 heartbreak concept album "Where Are You?" (and by this point, it should be clear, one of the inspirations of Dylan's "Shadows in the Night"). By the time Sinatra got around to recording it the song was 20 years old, originating in the 1937 film "Top of the Town." The early hit version was by Mildred Bailey in the 1930s, but Sinatra made it his. There are many other good versions, including those by Shirley Bassey, Dinah Washington and this writer's favorite songstress, Julie London. Aretha Franklin recorded a moving rendition in 1963 during her unfairly maligned stint at Columbia Records as a jazz and pop singer.
"What'll I Do" (Berlin): The oldest song on the set, written by Irving Berlin in the early 1920s for a Broadway revue. Jazzman Paul Whiteman had a hit with it in 1924. Sinatra recorded it twice: in 1947 for Columbia with Axel Stordahl and in 1962 for Reprise with Gordon Jenkins. The 1962 version was released on "All Alone," Sinatra's update for his own label, Reprise, of his famous "suicide songs" concept albums for Capitol in the 1950s. The song remained a popular standard for decades and there are good versions by Chet Baker (Dylan and Baker seem to share an affinity for the same torch songs), Lena Horne, Julie London, Sarah Vaughan, Cher and Harry Nilsson. "What'll I Do" was also used by Nelson Riddle as the theme for his score for the 1974 version of "The Great Gatsby" (the one with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow).
"That Lucky Old Sun" (Smith, Gillespie): "Shadows in the Night" closes with the most soulful of the songs Dylan selected. Composed in 1949 as a kind of late-era spiritual/work song, it was recorded by Louis Armstrong, but Frankie Laine had the hit. Sinatra did his version when the song was new, but Laine's became the definitive rendition of 1949 (and a palpable influence on singers who were coming of age at the time like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash). Jerry Lee Lewis revved it up as a Sun recording, and it was later adopted as a proto-soul standard by Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin (also during the Columbia years). More recently, Willie Nelson recorded a crystalline version for 1976's "The Sound in Your Mind" (included now as a bonus track to Willie's "Stardust," which Dylan told AARP was a direct influence on "Shadows in the Night") and in 2007 became the centerpiece of a song cycle about California by none other than Brian Wilson.