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Review: Bob Dylan Teaches Sinatra to Sing on the Rustling ‘Shadows in the Night’

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: February 4, 2015
Label: Columbia

“I left all my dreams and hopes,” Bob Dylan, longing to be a carol singer, once sang in his ravaged cadence, “buried under tobacco leaves.” These days almost everyone knows that saying “Dylan can’t sing” is a category error — just listen again to that “It balances on your head just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine” line; draw a diagram if you have to — but even the most devoted attendants to His Dylanness could be forgiven for doubting that his current tar-cloaked mutter would make the best fit for an albumful of Frank Sinatra signatures.

Phrasing-wise, the two singers are neck-and-neck, but no version of the oft-revised Dylan Voice has come close to the seamless ribbon of Sinatra’s croon. The freakish fluidity that made every one of Sinatra’s phrasings seem like an inevitable expression of the song’s True Self is here occasionally disrupted by an awkward enjambment or elongated vowel. (At other times a vowel stretches so far, thinning and flattening with the tension, you may hear the ghost of a younger, whoaaaaaaaaaaaa-ing Dylan rustle past through the tobacco leaves.)

But this album has been a long time coming; that is, Dylan has had a long time to get to know these songs. Aside from dropping hints over the years of interest in doing an album of standards, Dylan’s new songs have repeatedly lingered on the lilting, melancholy sound of pre-rock pop: songs that approach love with weary sophistication, elegantly couching the depth of their pain and bliss in formal simplicity. Dylan doesn’t try to match Sinatra’s dominance — his casual, apparently effortless ownership of whatever he was singing. Instead, through fragile croons and growls, he projects an understanding and sympathy for his narrators that allows him to excavate phrases Sinatra let be. On “Why Try to Change Me Now?,” which might as well be an actual Late-Dylan Song, or the sad, achingly funny version of “That Lucky Old Sun,” Dylan’s voice does the same things it does for so many of his own songs: pries open unfamiliar seams of feeling inside phrases long abandoned to cliché.

It helps that this may be the best-produced album of his career. In this department, as in others, that career’s been patchy: the mindblowing clamor of Tom Wilson’s production on the early electric albums, and the “thin wild mercury sound” Dylan developed with Bob Johnston, eventually gave way to decades of rickety compromise with producers who were either frustrated by Dylan’s haphazard and inarticulate approach to recording (Don DeVito) or thoroughly on their own trip (Daniel Lanois). But the albums Dylan has produced himself in the last 15 years, under the sobriquet Jack Frost, have been so crisply suited to his voice, and to his absurdly good touring band, it’s hard not to believe this is exactly the sound he hears in his head. Shadows in the Night shares its warm and spacious detail with 2006’s Modern Times — an album on which you could hear a pin drop and know where, no matter who was playing electric guitar — but Dylan’s rasp has improved since then, and Shadows’ gentle, minimal arrangements give it plenty of room to maneuver and morph.

Note the end of the more-haunting-than-ever “Autumn Leaves,” when Dylan gradually becomes indistinguishable from the groaning bass, or the gentle climax of “Some Enchanted Evening,” when he tries for a high note, misses it, and grows ruefully thinner and quieter until disappearing into the sound of squeaking frets. (Or halfway through “Why Try to Change Me Now,” when he tries for a high note and makes it.) Sometimes, the minimized Dylan arrangements improve upon Sinatra’s: compare the spiral of dramatic strings on Gordon Jenkins’ original arrangement of Sinatra’s “Autumn Leaves” to their transmuted echo in the swaying lap steel of the Dylan version, and you’ll find all the feeling in a third of the psychic space.

You could say the same thing, in fact, about several of Dylan’s hallowed ’60s masterpieces — choppy oceans of imagery whose volume alone was humbling — or indeed about the long and ragged set pieces on 2011’s ostentatiously major Tempest. The ostentatiously minor Shadows in the Night has no nine-minute songs, Biblical scenarios, jesters, preachers, gypsies, tarot cards, or citations of Rimbaud. It’s mostly just about a certain kind of way you can say the words “your arms,” and what it might mean.