After a long career of highly creative music that had a major impact on American popular culture and that as artistic expression will likely last for centuries, Bob Dylan has earned the privilege of his eccentricities. We should be willing to indulge them, occasionally. I knew of his fondness for Sinatra from his memoir Chronicles, volume 1, and in a number of recent albums he has written songs in the Tin Pan Alley style. I think especially of “Beyond the Horizon” on Modern Times, which sounds like a Bing Crosby Hawaiian tune, and of the entirety of Christmas in the Heart, a part-serious, part tongue-in-cheek tribute to the American popular Christmas music tradition. No one could have grown up when Dylan did and escaped the influence of the music that people listened to in those years.
The songs on Shadows in the Night (2015) are well performed, and it is interesting to hear Dylan put his imprint on works that Sinatra sang but that we don’t normally associate with him. I’ve read commentaries about how Dylan comes across in these songs as emotional and vulnerable, about how the album really works and is fun and listenable. The reviews, in fact, have been strongly positive. There’s no doubt that in performing these songs Dylan seriously puts his heart into them.
From my standpoint, these songs weren’t written for Dylan’s voice. The Dylan I respect and admire is a writer of songs, an interpreter of his own music. He’s the masterful creator of Highway 61 Revisited, “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Cold Irons Bound,” Love and Theft, “I'm Not There,” and so many others. If I recorded an album like this one, no one would listen to it, except perhaps my embarrassed family. I couldn’t convince anyone to record it, unless I paid to have it made. Dylan has a band, he has the financial resources, he has the reputation to persuade people to listen to whatever he records and produces. (I will listen to anything he records.) Now he has produced Shadows in the Night. I have listened to it repeatedly, attempting to “get” what he is doing. But I can’t. I hope he’s got it out of his system.