Bob Dylan released his last album in 2012, with the critically and commercially successful Tempest, full of tracks loaded with despair and bite, suggesting Dylan was truly ready to continue his artistic journey. What has he decided to follow that album with? An album of Frank Sinatra covers.
Frank Sinatra had one of the most universally acclaimed and loved voices of the 20th century, seemingly able to sing anything put in front of him. However, all of his major hits were written by other people and, much like Elvis Presley, he was more seen as an interpreter of songs. Bob Dylan is one of the most universally acclaimed and loved songwriters of the 20th and 21st centuries, seemingly able to pull a clever lyric and melody from any aspect of life. However, he has an incredibly divisive voice, which has only become more and more strained as the years have gone by. A Frank Sinatra covers album by Bob Dylan does therefore not seem like exactly a match made in heaven; in fact, it seems more the topic of satire and parody. On the other hand, so wide-ranging and brilliant is Dylan’s back catalogue that one would think he has earned the right to produce any kind of album he wants to, and his decision to pay tribute to one of his idols is rather touching.
Dylan’s vocals are the most obvious targets for critics for the album, with the songs he is interpreting originally being all about the melody and the voice. While obviously nowhere near as accomplished as Sinatra’s originals, Dylan’s voice is frequently haunting, and importantly, believable, with every note being sung as if it is coming from Dylan’s real emotions. This is particularly apparent on ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’, where Dylan sounds like an aged lover confessing feelings held for many years. A long time has passed since Dylan was the youthful voice of a generation.
The lead single of the album, ‘Stay With Me’, initially seems like a plea from Dylan for his fans and the media to not dismiss him in his later years. The lyrics “I grow cold, I grow weary and I know I have sinned” seem much more pertinent for Dylan than they ever were for Sinatra, with Dylan coming across like a broken man yearning for a sense of hope. This sense of desperation rings true throughout the whole album, particularly in the opening track ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’. However, the fact that Dylan at this age is able to let himself be self-indulgent in the love of another great suggests he is drawing upon other experiences to draw out the emotions displayed throughout the album.
Shadows in the Night is largely one for mega-fans of Dylan or Sinatra, with the tracks not particularly adding anything to the canon of either artist. However, the album is nonetheless endearing and stands testament to the fact that even after all these years, Dylan is still able to surprise us with his next moves and can consistently produce quality albums. What songs does the man who has written every kind of song sing? Someone else’s.