With this week’s release of Shadows in the Night, Bob Dylan has unveiled his buzziest album in years. On track to become Dylan’s eighth No. 1 album in the U.K. – with chart success also expected stateside – Shadows in the Night is the album on everybody’s lips. We can’t stop talking about it at Second Disc HQ, either. Joe filed his review on Tuesday, but longtime Dylanphile Ted has “another side” to offer, too! Please join the discussion and sound off below on the latest work from one of America’s most respected artists.
“What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering [these songs]. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day.” – Bob Dylan
Has Bob Dylan been playing a 50+ year-long joke on us…? Is Dylan, in fact, just a simple “song-and-dance man,” a description of himself he quipped during the now-legendary San Francisco press conference of 1965? The answer, as evidenced by his most recent concert and latest studio album, Shadows in the Night, is perhaps a surprising “yes.”
Bob Dylan and His Band’s final performance of a five-night stay at New York City’s Beacon Theatre, for which I was lucky enough to have scored a single ticket, was held on December 3, 2014. On that night, I took in a set that hinted at another turning point in an already renowned career. Far from the “freewheelin’” atmosphere of most of Dylan’s concerts, the evening’s event was billed as a “show.” The stage set, although minimal, recalled an elegance once found in old Hollywood. The band was attired uniformly in all black (with slight shades of gray) while the maestro donned a pronounced white suit, black shirt, bolo tie, and white planter hat. None of the songs performed were outright “rockers.” While Dylan’s singing and penchant for drawing out emotion with the harp have remained intact, he has undergone a gradual transition in concert from guitarist to keyboardist to grand piano player over the past few years. It suits his penchant for music and lyrics of melancholic poise and yearning. This concert, as the last performance preceding this new album, was indicative of these leanings. As the evening’s opening number presaged, the times certainly have changed for Bob Dylan and His Band.
Shadows in the Night, Dylan’s 36th studio recording, is, in some ways, a natural progression from his most recent albums. They have each been peppered with torch songs like Love and Theft’s “Moonlight” or Modern Times’ “Spirit on the Water.” Consider, too, Dylan’s take on Dean Martin’s “Return to Me” as recorded for The Sopranos: Peppers & Eggs. To hear Dylan’s voice – one that has often been labeled the voice of the folk generation – evolving into the blues growl he has seemingly been pining to possess for quite some time is an interesting transition, to say the least. Shadows no longer hints at Dylan’s interest in ballads; it places them under an amiable spotlight.
With a run time similar to LPs of the 1950s, Shadows of the Night is a happily old-fashioned album, the kind of album Dylan himself often featured on his Theme Time Radio Hour. It’s not quite as succinct as Nashville Skyline, but nearly as sweet in its tone. To understand Shadows, imagine blending the mournful meanderings of a song like “Simple Twist of Fate” with Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle’s In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning and engaging with that kind of reverie and longing over the course of 35 minutes.
The album cover of Shadows boasts a tasteful, bar tone head shot of Dylan. Along with its sparse, meditative, and slightly muscular sound, it’s the most Blue Note album that Blue Note never made. After all, Shadows is an album solely composed of standards, all of which were at some point recorded by Sinatra including “I’m a Fool to Want You” (co-written by Frank) and “What’ll I Do.” Dylan’s rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening” reminds the listener that a prerequisite to singing standards does not necessarily require having the most polished voice, but rather an ability to “uncover” stories embedded within song that, at times, can be overshadowed by perfect technique. Who better to tell and reveal stories in song than the most prolific singer-songwriter of modern times? What impressively aids Dylan in this lyrical revelation is his singing. It wavers between being as tender and frail as a whisper, thus demanding the listener’s attention as each and every word trickles out. It’s in listening to his take on a classic like “Evening,” that Dylan permits the listener to see past the nostalgia of the song and actually see the stranger across the room distilled in his smoky gaze.
Shadows is a superb album all the way through to its final song, “That Lucky Old Sun.” This last number not only makes this album an artistic statement, but also features Dylan aiming for notes that he hasn’t often reached for since Infidels’ “Jokerman.” Consider “That Lucky Old Sun” the flipside to Love and Theft’s concluding song, “Sugar Baby,” in which Dylan no longer finds the sunlight “too intense,” but enlightening. Using the symbol of the sun, Dylan infuses an album filled with shades of yearning, distress, and wonder with warmth and vigor. To close out an album with a song as such, it sheds light on these loosely linked songs of the “night” and brings them into the light of day. He’s lifting them from the shadows which Dylan himself almost singlehandedly cast them when he shifted music’s focus from craft and interpretation into earnest singer-songwriting. Shadows marks Dylan’s time as now to find that “silver lining,” in the shape of an album whereby he put down his pen and curated the songs of others to “lift (him)…to paradise.”
As Bob Dylan’s first all-covers LP since the 1990s (save his Christmas collection), this is probably not an album for the uninitiated; that’s what Greatest Hits Volume 1 or Blood on the Tracks are for. It may on the surface appear to be a kitschy choice for Dylan to sing jazz standards, but, Dylan’s jazz comes entwined with the blues. What Ralph J. Gleason once said of blues artist T-Bone Walker could now apply to Dylan: “The blues singer has a more simple task than the popular singer, for instance, in that his lyrics usually are within his own experience. But the same fiercely burning emotional quality is necessary to enable him to make them come to life.” What makes Shadows of the Night ultimately work exceptionally well is producer “Jack Frost’s” ability to bare these songs down to their soul. The listener can actually hear the distances traveled in the long and winding road, engulfed in Dylan’s weather-worn vocals and these well-worn lyrics. It is an album of tender space and romantic longing for which Donnie Herron’s pedal steel guitar provides a haunted, shaded backdrop. (Dylan is only credited with vocals on the album, which is a first for his catalogue.) The production of “Frost” reminds listeners that moving forward often involves looking back. Shadows is one of Dylan’s most significant contributions in recent times and a majestic achievement. It is an album that, like Time Out of Mind, affirms a new chapter in Dylan’s ever-evolving career.
Rolling Stone correctly touted Dylan’s December 3, 2014 concert as a “masterful” performance; it will hopefully someday be added to the growing annals of licensed bootlegs in the Dylan catalogue. He closed out that New York City night, as he consistently has been doing of late, not with his staple closer “All Along the Watchtower,” nor “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but with “Stay With Me” from Shadows in the Night. This stark and ambling song could find its way onto Dylan’s next Greatest Hits collection. The evening was sparse yet still full of sincerity, and while it included a couple of songs like “Tangled Up in Blue,” “She Belongs to Me,” and “Love Sick” that rewarded a fan’s affinity for Dylan over the passing years, the majority of the show was set emphatically in the present, culminating in Dylan’s humble plea to stay with him. It’s a song like “Stay With Me” that reminds fans that it’s truly not dark yet for Dylan. So, when a mercurial legend like Bob Dylan asks you to stay with them, one unflinchingly complies.