By HANNAH DZIEZANOWSKI
Believe it or not, Bob Dylan quietly released a new album at the beginning of this month; covering songs from The Great American Songbook, the 73-year-old icon has finally joined countless established musicians in the trend of revisiting the past by recording the classics of the twentieth century. Many artists, including Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Carly Simon, and now, Lady Gaga in conjunction with Tony Bennett, have all put their own twists on the classics, just as countless rock and pop artists have released Christmas albums – it has nearly become expected of the greats. However, while most contemporary covers of these timeless tunes imitate the originals in execution, Dylan’s Shadows in the Night retains his style to such a degree that the songs would sound like Dylan originals if they were not so iconic.
This ten-track album consists of songs previously recorded by Frank Sinatra, one of the early interpreters of the Songbook whose covers have become as famous as the originals themselves. In his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan comments on Sinatra’s version of “Ebb Tide,” which explains his Sinatra-laden album: “When Frank sang that song, I could hear everything in his voice – death, God and the universe, everything.” One could make the same argument about Dylan, though he may lack the vocal virtuosity; over the years, his voice has gone from “sand and glue,” as David Bowie famously described it, to a more weathered, more gravelly derivative that often renders his songs unrecognizable. Yet, without fail, his voice is always highly emotive and refreshingly natural; and, as a bonus, his voice is stronger and clearer on this album than it has been in a long time. Additionally, like his voice, the production of his album is imperfect, but strong. In a press release, Dylan described the recording process: “It was all done live. Maybe one or two takes. No overdubbing. No vocal booths. No headphones. No separate tracking and, for the most part, mixed as it was recorded.” This augments the emotional depth of the album, especially during the heartbreaking “I’m a Fool to Want You” and the imploring “That Lucky Old Sun” that closes the album with the lines, “Show me that river, take me across/ And wash all my troubles away/ Like that lucky old sun…Let me roll around Heaven all day.”
However, though much of the album addresses mortality, it is not grim in the least; Dylan’s vocals are the best they have sounded in years, and he embraces the life and musical career he has had by staying true to his artistry, especially evident in the track, “Why Try to Change Me Now.” Dylan said of this album, “I don’t see myself as covering these songs…what me and my band are doing is uncovering them.” Indeed, Dylan has uncovered and enlivened these tracks in a way entirely new and beautiful, confirming his immense talent despite his fraying voice. To Dylan-ites and newbies alike, I highly recommend this album – in addition to providing a satisfying dose of Dylan, it serves as an excellent reminder of the unmatchable beauty of musical naturalism.