Don’t trust the haters. A quick perusal of Internet commentary about Dylan’s latest reveals a lot of reduction (“Dylan does Sinatra”) and snark (“They couldn’t get The Chipmunks for a Sinatra album, so they got this guy.”) The songs on Shadows in the Night are gorgeous, and they stand on their own; but that’s from someone with 371 Dylan songs in his library, and 412 by Sinatra. (AARP published a long interview with Dylan that serves as a primer for those who don’t see the connection.)
Dylan has said these songs have been with him for a long time – in some cases, his entire life. Like Sinatra, Dylan believes a singer needs to understand the words before they sing; he says that’s the distinction between singing to an audience instead of at them. Dylan’s version of Autumn Leaves bears out the point – it’s stunning, arguably richer in meaning than Sinatra’s version, if not as conventionally pretty.
The arrangements on Shadows in the Night are nothing like Sinatra’s versions (which Dylan says he reveres). These are stripped down acoustic interpretations, recorded live with no overdubs and minimal processing. Dylan’s voice isn’t smooth (he wobbles all over the pitch), but he “sings true,” to borrow a phrase. There was plenty of bile spewed at him when he plugged in, back in 1965 – but he sang the hell out of those songs, too. That’s why reductive templates don’t work with Dylan, or any true artist. His electric rock was significantly different than his folk songs, which were both different than his country songs, his gospel songs, etc. But his vocal instrument has always served the music, and it does here as well.
I doubt anybody listening to 90-second preview snippets of these tracks will be impressed (I’ll bet none of the one-star reviewers on iTunes listened to the entire album.) It helps to know the songs ahead of time, to read about why Dylan chose them, and how he approached recording them. It also helps to review your favorite Dylan tracks – to place the new music within his canon. Then sit down and listen to a few numbers in their entirety. (Autumn Leaves and What’ll I Do are standouts. The weakest track is Some Enchanted Evening, which is far removed from Dylan’s lyrical sensibility; he also mangles the vowel sound on the word “stranger” and gives the song a too-insistent beat.) Shadows in the Night is an intriguing and worthy addition to Dylan’s discography. It should be heard as a piece – the entire album becomes richer the more you experience it.