Bob Dylan is famous for doing the opposite of what anybody ever thought he would do. Time and again he has gone in the opposite direction of what was at the time considered cool and he has frustrated many of his fans in his departures from what they believed was the good and true. His folkies – purists all – just about lost it back in the sixties when he exchanged his Martin acoustic for a Fender stratocaster and turned the amps up at the Monterey Pop Festival. I’ve got to think he disappointed many others when he recorded country songs on Nashville Skyline.
But we all catch up with Bob after a while and learn, generally, that his movements are not just whimsy or defiance – although there may be some of those mixed in – but that he really might be ahead of the curve and have something to tell us, artistically. Something to stretch us and open us up a bit.
All that being said, if someone had told me that Dylan had it in mind to produce a record of old Sinatra songs, I would have thought it a joke. Frank Sinatra had the coolest, most melodic voice. He had power and range and tone and could make it all seem so effortless. Dylan, on the other hand, has never been noted for his vocal quality. He sang to get the words out – to say what he needed to say – and that was it. Good enough for me, by the way, but I have told my wife more than once when she asks me how I can stand to listen to “that man” that what I really admired was his writing and that no one really considered him much of a singer.
So why would he then concern himself with taking on songs that Sinatra had already made into classics? Why try to outdo or even compete with the king at his own game? A game that you don’t have the chops for?
And so I did not dive headlong in to Dylan’s latest album: “Shadows in The Night,” but proceeded cautiously.
And now I am hooked. Now I think that this record – that includes not a single Dylan composition – may be one of his best and is certainly one of his most thoughtful and generous records ever.
A big part of the charm of the album is the song selection. This is not just a redo of Sinatra’s greatest hits. There is no version of “Fly Me To The Moon,” or “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” This is not swing or buoyant jazz. These songs are aching songs of longing, unfulfilled dreams and even in one case repentance. I’ve been a Sinatra fan for four decades and I had never heard many of these songs.
So one thing Dylan has done is some homework; some research. He has dug pretty deep here and polished off some old compositions that are quite moving for many reasons. Dylan had convinced me some time ago of his genuine love for American standards – for the old songwriters – and this is further evidence that makes that case beyond a reasonable doubt.
I’ve listened to the record at least twenty times through now, and I have gone back to hear the original Sinatra versions of many of these songs. Sinatra was a national treasure. He was one of a kind and his work merits attention, even now. The old songwriters, like Sinatra, are national treasures.
Listen to this record and learn again how men and women used to feel about each other.
Mr. Dylan – thanks for the careful work – and for the love obvious in this record. You are a national treasure.