Bob Dylan… is a man of many hats. In fact that seems more like an understatement, let’s change that. Bob Dylan is a man of so many hats 36 albums into his career that one seriously begins to ponder just what genre (or bowler hat) is left that Mr. Dylan HASN’T tackled.
Early 60’s protest folk, Dylan goes electric, the Christian era, blues, soul, transitioning from his initial nasal-d honk to a gravelly, hardened vocal exterior… his Bobness has pretty much seen it, been there, and done that too. But that story has been told time and time again to the point of folklore, what really concerns me here as I write this is Dylan’s tackling of the Great American Songbook. Yes, that same Songbook once held aloft by golden-throated vocalists like Frank Sinatra, that in more recent terms has been bludgeoned and mangled by exhaustive years of visits from the likes of Rod Stewart.
And while Dylan isn’t exactly going to single-handedly turn the tide of finger-snapping cliche that this Songbook has become, Shadows in the Night continues to establish that the 73-year old is going to do what he wants to do, no matter where that path takes him. And with Shadows, that results in a payoff that’s a bit of a double edged sword.
On the plus side, this record features some of Dylan’s smoothest and most composed vocal work in several years. It’s often taken getting the man into the studio to get results that are even vaguely decipherable, and with this record that shoe leather rasp even fades a bit further than usual into the background. Instead Dylan makes his best attempt at crooning on songs like Full Moon and Empty Arms and What’ll I Do, and while he’d never reach the notes Sinatra could smash with impunity, Dylan’s world-weary, dry bones across a dusty courtyard scratch creates an impression of almost greater significance.
While those throwback crooners of the day belted out their emotion with strong pitch and almost Broadway-esque sensibilities, Dylan’s interpretation is more the broken down man. The man trailing the edge of his local corner bar every night for the last fifty years lamenting choices taken, loves lost and the labor of life that broke through his back many years before. The man that’s past his time and past his prime pouring his words down with a fifth of whiskey and the barest cigarette smoke trail of a song.
Add in Dylan’s discarding of the pomp and circumstance of big brassy jazz (instead opting for a more slow simmering country style), and Shadows in the Night really feels like it possesses his own stamp on a genre already so well traveled in the decades since it’s inception. The downside however, is that Shadows is just a bit too stuck inside this single mindset. Songs never really jump too far in tempo or composition, as if almost afraid to upset the delicate balance against Dylan’s spiderweb-like vocals. As a result, there aren’t nearly as many memorable moments as one might expect; instead the record relies more on the tempo of it’s overall mood in order to make a lasting impact.
But all in all, Bob Dylan’s Shadows in the Night is a solidly effective album if nothing else. It does have a tendency to fade into background noise with it’s methodical to a fault pacing, but the record is well-crafted and pays fitting homage to the songs it seeks to honor. And while Dylan’s next effort could do with an emotional jump start of his own lyrics to put a bit more urgency in place, this isn’t bad for what it is. I think both fans and casual listeners alike could easily appreciate it.