opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >
Bob Dylan’s latter-day career renaissance has not been without its head-scratchers. Perhaps you remember the Victoria's Secret commercial? Or Masked and Anonymous? How about the Christmas album? These have been the most recent blips in a career teeming with major bumps, and more than a few derailments. The quality of Zimmy’s output, if charted on a six-decade time series, would match the performance of a blue chip stock: a steady upward trajectory, sliced with high spikes and deep valleys. The thing about Dylan, though, is that his worst work is always fascinating, and often ready for reevaluation. 1970’s Self Portrait, one of his consistently reviled albums — about which Greil Marcus, an overall cheerleader, famously opened his Rolling Stone review with the firebomb of “What is this shit?” — has already been rehabilitated by Another Self Portrait. That recent assortment of outtakes and scraps casted a golden light on what was once considered utter garbage. I’m still waiting for the Bootleg Series revelation that proves Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove are misunderstood masterworks.
I hadn't even planned on reviewing Shadows in the Night. Another collection of cover versions? Ugh. Oh, and they’re Sinatra covers. LOL, why bother? Turns out, Bob Dylan’s thirty-sixth studio album is a further example of his genius — and my dickish response, a further example of critical laziness and cynicism. I made a rookie mistake, pining for Dylan, the legendary innovator and poet, while discounting Dylan, the masterful performer and interpreter. The man who sings on Shadows in the Night, who bends the American Songbook to his will with gravelly ease, of course began his career by making folk standards his snot-nosed own. So, Shadows is no lark: it’s a gentle and undulating return to Dylan’s salad days. Except, time’s cruel onward march — and also heartache, and regret, and tenderness — wraps a itchy woolen cloak around these ten sterling standards.
Dylan began his fare thee well to folk-rock on Time Out of Mind, and fully left it behind on the swinging song-and-dance of “Love and Theft”. He named his last great record Modern Times, after the ‘36 Chaplin film, and a callused middle-finger poked up throughout its dustbowl shuffle and sway. Shadows in the Night can’t match that astounding trilogy, but it does represent a logical conclusion (more so than Together Through Life and Tempest, lesser examples of a similar impulse to create new pre-rock classics). On Shadows, Dylan goes straight to the source, and slows things to a high-viscosity seep. All the while, he croons with a croak, and his band follows in kind, remaining just outside the downbeat.
Those who regard Bob Dylan as a bad singer only take into account half of what makes a vocalist extraordinary. There’s the natural gift — range and color — which can readily be heard on television singing competitions and even at your local karaoke bar. And then there’s learned style — phrasing and rendition — which comes from true artistry. When all factors converge, you have an Aretha or a Stevie, or more recently, a Mariah or a D’Angelo. Dylan, however, is an expert stylist who can no longer hit a note dangling higher than his brow, with a timbre that’s sandpaper smooth. But, oh, the execution, so worn and battered, which lifts the finest of these reinterpretations (such as “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” “The Night We Called It a Day,” and “I’m a Fool to Want You”) above wistfulness into pathos. Even at its most optimistic (“Some Enchanted Evening,” kinda), Shadows in the Night is a major downer, Dylan’s bleakest statement since he released the quintessential breakup album forty years ago (and that record at least contained a spirited left turn).
“That Lucky Old Sun,” Shadows’ ultimate track, begins with regal horns and smacking lips, a jarring contrast of the magnificent and the mundane. It’s an apt finale to an album that soars as much as it wallows. Dylan’s version of “That Lucky Old Sun” sounds like a harrowing death vision, an older man’s sequel to his own “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Lest anyone think Shadows in the Night is a put-on, Bob Dylan has anticipated your protests. On the album’s best number, he sings, “So let people wonder/ Let ‘em laugh, let ‘em frown.” And then he asks a crucial question, twice: “Don’t you remember/ I was always your clown?” That song’s title is “Why Try to Change Me Now?” B