Shadows in the Night
I was skeptical last year when the news surfaced that Bob Dylan was recording an album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra. But listening and re-listening to Shadows in the Night over the past few days, I was captivated by Dylan’s 10-song, 35-minute excursion into the Great American Songbook.
Although each of these songs may have been sung by Sinatra at one point – and he’s listed as a co-writer on “I’m a Fool to Want You,” the opening number – and although the album title, Shadows in the Night, may be an allusion to “Strangers in the Night,” a Sinatra hit of the mid-1960s, I really don’t hear the album as a Sinatra tribute.
For one thing, Dylan does none of Sinatra’s major hits. There are no versions of “Strangers in the Night,” “New York, New York,” “It was a Very Good Year,” “One for My Baby,” “My Way,” etc. on this album. I looked through my own (limited) collection of Sinatra albums and not one of these songs is there. So while I am familiar with some of them from versions by other artists as disparate as Louis Armstrong and Rufus Wainwright – I recall 20-year-old Rufus singing a beautiful rendition of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” at his maternal grandmother’s funeral in 1994 – I do not have previous Sinatra associations with any of these songs.
For another, Dylan does not attempt to sound like Sinatra – how could he possibly? – and the arrangements, played by Dylan’s touring band with some occasional muted horns added to some songs, sound nothing like Sinatra’s typical big band or orchestral settings. There isn’t even a piano player on the album.
The Sinatra allusion aside, Shadows in the Night is a great title for a deeply intimate album that really should be listened to late at night. The songs are mature reflections sung quietly in Dylan’s ragged, yet compelling voice. He makes these songs his own in ways that are very different from how Sinatra – or other voices like Tony Bennett or Ella Fitzgerald – might have approached them.
The key song, for me anyway, is “Why Try to Change Me Now?” one of the more obscure songs I’d never heard before. Written by Joseph McCarthy Jr. and Cy Coleman, it’s lyrics could credibly have been written by Dylan about himself. “So, let people wonder, let ‘em laugh, let ‘em frown/You know I’ll love you till the moon’s upside down/Don’t you remember I was always your clown?/Why try to change me now?” he sings on top of a quietly lovely guitar-and-pedal-steel-based arrangement.
Among my other favorites are the weary-voiced renditions of “Autumn Leaves” and “That Lucky Old Sun,” both songs I’ve heard by many other artists, and Berlin’s “What I’ll Do,” a beautiful, lonely song.
Many of these are songs of regret – regrets borne of maturity and experience – and Dylan’s voice, ragged from the decades but somehow sweeter than it’s ever been, and as compelling as it’s ever been, draws me deeply into the songs. And I love the way he’s re-imagined the songs for subdued, arrangements built around guitars, pedal steel and bass.
This is not an album that Dylan – who revolutionized the art of songwriting in the 1960s when he was in his 20s – could have made back then. But it is something I’m glad he surprised us with in his 70s.