Bob Dylan has been a lot of things to a lot of people over the years. Genius, fool, poet, try hard, misguided, inspired, fearless, hostile... I could go on, but one thing he never has been is unambitious. Until now.
Reaction was mixed when the legendary singer-songwriter announced late in 2014 that his next album Shadows in the Night
, set to drop in February, would be a set of covers. The concept is, of course, nothing new to Dylan: he had previously done albums of nothing but folk interpretations for his debut Bob Dylan
(1963) and then again with Good As I Been To You
(1992) and World Gone Wrong
So optimists declared that Dylan, given his excellent form coming off a string of great albums in Tempest
, Modern Times
, Love and Theft
and Time Out of Mind
, had chosen the best time to adopt these ten Frank Sinatra recordings. Detractors wondered if Dylan was tempting his muse – which, as even his most devoted fans will agree, has a tendency to up and leave him with notice - with such a modest choice.
The biggest question was how Dylan’s voice – snarled, raspy and a hundred years old – would handle the honeyed, swooning ballads of Ol’ Blue Eyes. Well, the answer is actually pretty well: his crooning is smooth but he still injects the pain and sadness required to serve notice that these performances aren’t just run-through. Lost and dying love that’s just too damn hard to be worth it anymore is the consistent thread of Shadows in the Night
and Dylan finds all the notes of farewell on ‘I’m A Fool To Want You’, ‘The Night We Called It A Day’ and ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’. When he sobs “What'll I do with just a photograph to tell my troubles to"” or “Fools give you reasons/Wise men never try” he inhabits it with such ease that – if you didn’t already know otherwise – you could easily mistake these for original recordings.
Unfortunately, these songs – and almost all the others, to be honest – stand up on their own better than across a full sitting. As one mellow, sleepy ballad fades into another, it gets harder and harder to ignore cynicism over the arrangement. Shadows in the Night
is like listening to a silk curtain swirl across a full moon – yes, it’s lovely, but it’s also bloody glacial and wears thin quickly. Until the brassy sweep of ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ there’s nothing here with enough melody or energy that would even get your grandparents to waltz slowly across the living room to fond teenage memories. This is also the first Dylan album, funnily enough, since World Gone Wrong
that does not boast a great new addition to the great man’s back catalogue (and no, I am not counting the truly misguided Christmas in the Heart
. Never mention that again).
Shadows in the Night
does not have the ambition, variety or appealing attitude of Dylan’s previous excellent albums. It does not have a great song or a bad song, just good songs – take them one at a time and you’ll think this latest covers album was worthy in conception and execution. Just don't listen to them when you're driving home tired...