On his self-produced 36th album, Bob Dylan turns in his best vocal performance in years. He sounds like a man in love with the past (his own) and the swooning music steers him far away from the strident, young man that he actually was.
There’s no anger, agitation or outraged protest on Shadows in the Night because it’s Dylan’s secret, distant past that he’s invoking here. Like his Buddy Holly, Little Richard or Leadbelly inspirations, he’s casting back a long way for one of his talismans; in this case it’s Frank Sinatra. He covers Sinatra’s songs on Shadows In the Night.
Part of Dylan’s appeal and longevity is his unknowable character and contrarian stance. Sinatra and Dylan don’t compute, but they were both pop stars (of differing types), rebels, singers and complex characters. Dylan’s ongoing tours and subtle reinventions draw heavily on his past and his early inspirations — pretty typical for most artists.
Dylan has always been a roots-based musician and one that has a deep well of knowledge of ancient folk songs, rural blues and early jazz-pop. He was around for the birth of rock and roll as well, so his Sinatra jones might be surprising but has a logical context.
The material on Shadows in the Night is rendered in dreamy performances with a lush backdrop of muted guitar and hushed keyboard and horns. A whiny pedal steel acts as a secondary vocal presence on the tracks.
Perhaps the studio at Capital Records in Los Angeles plays host to the ghosts of past sessions (Sinatra included) because Dylan and his band capture a glowing ambiance that is as important to the album as the songs and performances. They’re linked hand in hand (Some Enchanted Evening, Where Are You?). Dylan’s rendering of Why Try to Change Me Now? may be unintentionally autobiographical or confessional but at the least it’s a contemporary take of his life.
The most appealing aspect of this album is that it’s an honest and revealing glimpse into the roots and motivations of an intensely creative and fractious artist.