Bard. Voice of a generation. Bob Dylan has been called many things over the years. With his new album, Shadows in the Night, the 73-year-old aims for another title: crooner.
The new LP features Dylan’s versions of 10 songs from the Great American Songbook — all of them recorded at one time or another by Frank Sinatra — and it’s a strange, moody, sometimes brilliant left turn for the artist.
Dylan’s voice isn’t exactly cut out for torch singing. He’s brusque. He lacks the Sinatra suppleness. With these super-slow songs, Dylan looks back to a time when singers used nuance, shading and implication to tell their stories. It’s a challenge for him.
Yet Dylan is not dabbling. He’s a student of popular song from vaudeville forward; his recent albums have included coy originals that are similar in structure and spirit to these easygoing foxtrots. And unlike, say, a songbook hack like Rod Stewart, he understands how to shape a great melody and personalize it, with small gestures that convey meaning beyond the words.
Shadows in the Night was recorded the old-fashioned way: mostly live in the studio, with Dylan and a five-piece band all in one room. That makes a difference; Dylan whispers his way through a last-set, smoky-club atmosphere that’s the natural habitat for songs of longing and regret. The performances might not all be A-number-1, top-of-the-list genius, but they ring true. Sometimes if you’re trying to evoke a sense of romantic devastation, a devastated voice can actually be an asset.