If a Dylan-does-Sinatra record sounds like a bad idea that's because it probably is. But whatever Shadows in the Night is, it isn’t that. Not in the obvious way at least.
The first thing you notice upon listening is something I've long suspected: far from ravaged, Dylan currently possesses a voice capable of subtle, sweet pitch control and nuance. Soft and whispery, sure, but neither weak nor degraded. From the opening “I’m a Fool to Want You,” he assures us it will serve a strong and steady guide through the forthcoming enveloping terrain, navigating the complex harmonic changes and modulations of the Great American Songbook with effortless awareness. There is nary a buried phrase, not one interval soured by failed attempt. Dylan does not mask his voice with bouncy brass riffs or allow it to lazily piggyback on propelling swing; he lays it bare on top of a floating bed of steel guitar, rising and falling with the dynamics of the strings, tensile and exposed. Understanding, like Sinatra, that when working with songs of this caliber - contrary to the approach of the great jazz instrumentalists, or even Dylan himself - every performance is in service to the song, not the other way around. What a thing it is to think of Bob Dylan at 73 with not only something new to say, but a new way of saying it, like a secret he's grown too guilt ridden to conceal from the world any longer.
Dylan’s vocals are only made more impressive when considering the method of recording Shadows. Just as Sinatra would record his vocals live with the orchestra playing along in one big room, Dylan huddled with his band in a small circle inside Capitol Records Studio B and recorded each song live, no overdubs, no punching in. They didn’t just record the album live, but also in sequence.
Donny Herron’s pedal steel guitar is the other star of this record. While Tony Garnier’s bowed bass and Charlie Sexton’s and Stu Kimball’s tasty guitar phrases swim in and out periodically, the steel guitar is practically the only audible instrument for much of the record. Like Bucky Baxter’s sinister steel guitar parts that elevated Time Out of Mind, or Al Kooper’s mid-60’s organ, Herron serves as the perfect compliment for this particular Dylan performance.
More than that, Herron is essential. His warm and fluid, draping steel serves as the string section, a one-man Nelson Riddle chart. Part of Sinatra’s secret was to surround himself with the best: the best songs, the best players and, especially, the best arrangers. Different arrangers suited Sinatra’s different needs at different stages, but there was an incomparable magic between Sinatra and Riddle. Just as Riddle’s string arrangements on albums like In the Wee Small Hours or Close to You seem to ebb and flow with Sinatra’s voice, swelling and retreating as if in conversation, or courtship, so here do Herron’s steel and Dylan’s voice dance, complementing each other, dependent upon each other. There is no one without the other and there is seemingly nothing else. Herron’s work here lies among the landmarks of sidemen achievement.
Sinatra was capable of getting inside a song with the commitment of a method actor, yet with an effortless, conversational delivery that suspends us in his world. This is his genius. When Sinatra sings “I dim all the lights and I sink in my chair / the smoke from my cigarette climbs through the air,” for example, from “Deep in a Dream” on In the Wee Small Hours, you can see the shape of the wisps of smoke filtered through the shadows of the street light intruding on his dark room. You can see the smoke climb as it circles in the warmer, higher air dissipating above the singer’s head. Sinatra gets inside a song like no one ever has. So it is here.
“Autumn Leaves,” for example, is a song that has been recorded so many times I thought I never needed to hear it again. After Dylan’s opening line breaks Herron’s haunting intro, I wondered how I lived this long without this version. When Dylan sings, “the autumn leaves drift by the window,” letting his voice linger on the word “window,” as if trailing off through the cold pane and out into the crisp chilly wind, shaping the hard, barren landscape, you don’t merely see the leaves and see him standing there at the window; you are there, riding his lonesome voice as it fogs the frozen glass. You are there as the dead leaves in all their reds and golds fall away like the love of which he sings; death - the mother of beauty, dripping from each phrase. He sings the song one full time through and out; there is nothing more to say, it is a complete thought.
Frank Sinatra invented, and perfected, the concept album. For Sinatra, a concept album was not just a collection of songs about the same subject, although that is true for some, such as Moonlight Sinatra. Nor was it necessarily linked thematically lyrically, although most of them were. For Sinatra, the concept was in the atmosphere and vibe of the record itself, right down to the cover art. It is in its consistent mood and volume - in the music and lyric equally, but especially in the music, the arrangement - its amorphous expanding of vast, dark holes of sound into which the listener is drawn. The vocals, and thus the lyrics, become just one more part of the overall whole. There is so much space in those Sinatra records it is easy to fall in and remain there until politely excused at its conclusion, as if coming out of hypnoses. The great melancholy, string-laden Sinatra concept records are meditative; they are almost prayers. That specific vision and consistent execution is Sinatra’s true artistry and that is what Bob Dylan has achieved here.
The real star of the album isn’t Dylan’s voice or Herron’s steel guitar – it is the sound of space. This is Dylan’s great gift to us in modern times. Here and now, in 2015, Bob Dylan has returned to us the artistry of the best of Frank Sinatra without resulting to imitation, nostalgia or caricature. None of the 10 tracks on Shadows are what one thinks of when one thinks of “Frank Sinatra songs.” Yet Dylan has captured the very essence of Sinatra more than the obvious, cartoonish attempts from the likes of Manilow, Bolton or Buble. How insignificant every pale attempt at recreating Sinatra magic seems after experiencing the very marrow of the man that drips here from each weeping steel guitar passage, that collects in the dark space between each audible breath. It is the gift of craft. The craft of singing; not merely emoting a series of notes and words in sequence, but of singing the song from the inside and, by example, the craft of songwriting itself. It is the craft of recording, of capturing the sound of empty space.
Whenever confronted with one who professes not to like Frank Sinatra, I assume the machismo swing of “Luck Be a Lady” or “Fly Me to the Moon” does not resonate somehow with such a person, or that the sweaters and bowties remind them of their parents’ or grandparents’ tastes. I usually ask if they have heard the albums: Close to You, In the Wee Small Hours, Where Are You?, Only the Lonely. Invariably, no one who has ever confessed to me that they did not like Frank Sinatra has ever heard a Frank Sinatra album. And despite the infinite brilliant singles that have permeated the fabric of our collective esthetic, Frank Sinatra is absolutely an album artist, and it is in his albums where he is best understood.
The true essence of Sinatra is not in the irresistible hepcat swing and swagger, the “coo coo witchcraft,” the “groovy wind in her hair,” the “doo-be-doo-be-doo.” All that is wonderful and delicious and the world is a better place for it. But Sinatra’s great achievement is his ability to create sophisticated music, polished and consummate yet resonating with emotion, affecting all who listen, as deeply as they choose, dependent not on demographics or eras or ages.
Shadows in the Night has nothing to do with Frank Sinatra; yet it has everything to do with Frank Sinatra. It is Bob Dylan in a context in which we have never heard him, yet it is a context in which we feel we’ve always heard him – vulnerable, reflective, yet orchestrating with the cunning of the Magus; a poet with malice aforethought (once you think you’ve finally figured out what Dylan has achieved with this record, flip it over and ponder the back cover). From the opening steel guitar phrase through the concluding, fading final lyric, Frank Sinatra does not enter the listener’s mind once. In fact, it is difficult to note what - if anything - does, for the listener is that entrenched, that entranced, that consumed in the space between the shadows and the very central expression of life.