Friday, February 6, 2015

Casting Shadows

All through the years, I’ve heard these songs being recorded by other people and I’ve always wanted to do that. And I wondered if anybody else saw it the way I did. I was looking forward to hearing Rod [Stewart]’s records of standards. I thought if anybody could bring something different to these songs, Rod certainly could. But the records were disappointing. Rod’s a great singer. He’s got a great voice, but there’s no point to put a 30-piece orchestra behind him. I’m not going to knock anybody’s right to make a living but you can always tell if somebody’s heart and soul is into something, and I didn’t think Rod was into it in that way. It sounds like so many records where the vocals are overdubbed and these kind of songs don’t come off well if you use modern recording techniques.”

So let people wonder, let 'em laugh, let 'em frown.”

Bob Dylan's been making fans wonder, laugh, and frown for over half a century, and just when you question his remaining desire to astound, he delivers a breathtaking work like Shadows in the Night, an album of standards that had all previously been recorded by Frank Sinatra. Shadows joins “Love & Theft” and Christmas in the Heart as Dylan's twenty-first century masterpieces (most fans wouldn't rate the Christmas album that highly, but that's a question for another time). To me, an album is a masterpiece if the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts – if it's hard to listen to individual songs out of order, if I'm compelled to listen to it from start to end, repeatedly. Shadows satisfies that criterion.

Although an album of standards, Dylan makes the songs his own, and Shadows is a Dylan album through and through. These are songs of heartbreak, loss, regret, pining, and death, themes that Dylan has mined throughout his career. Some words or themes come up in song after song: the moon, the sun (or is it Son?), darkness/night, and dreams. The arrangements are Leonard Cohen spare, and there's an emphasis on the singing, which is being praised as the best of Dylan's career. Dylan inhabits these songs and enunciates like never before. This is literally the first Dylan album where I understood every word the first time around and didn't have to listen intently or consult outside sources to figure out some of the lyrics. There is, for me at least, a noticeable dearth of “listen to how he sings [such and such]” moments, and I think it's because what might make for Dylan's “best” traditional voice isn't the same thing that makes him my favorite singer of all time – that unique expressiveness that is often derided by the mainstream. This is Dylan singing conventionally, and ironically, one of the few unconventional “listen to how he sings” moments occurs on the word “conventional” in “Why Try to Change Me Now?” (a song that, even though it wasn't penned by Bob, might as well have been, as it could serve as his anthem).

Dylan did not write these songs, but he chose them carefully, and much of the album feels like we're revisiting his earlier work. I hear a lot of Time Out of Mind in Shadows, including in its opening and closing songs. In the AARP interview done in connection with the album's release, Dylan says that Time's “Love Sick” is the best song he's written about heartbreak and loss. “I'm a Fool to Want You,” which begins Shadows, expresses the same ambivalence as “Love Sick”: the narrator is both attracted to and repelled by his object of desire. When Dylan sings “I can't get along without you” here, there are echoes of “I'd give anything to be with you.”

It's a strange thing to say about an album of covers, but Dylan once again seems to be mixing up God and women. Of the ten songs on the album, eight of them, at least on the surface, seem to be about lost love. The album's two stand-out tracks (“Lucky Old Sun” and “Stay with Me”), however, appear to be prayers. (Also from the AARP interview: I like spiritual songs. They struck me as truthful and serious. They brought me down to earth and they lifted me up all in the same moment.”) With that in mind, I wonder whether God and women get confused within the songs – as presented specifically on this album -- themselves. In “I'm a Fool to Want You,” the narrator complains about “a love that's there for others too,” which could be addressed to God. There's also something about sharing a “kiss that the Devil has known,” which could be viewed as a reference to Lucifer before the fall. The Devil is referred to twice on Shadows – first on the opening track, and then on the closing one.

The second song, “The Night We Called it a Day” is also about lost love and contains the first references to the night, dark, moon and sun/Son. In terms of spirituality, there's a line about not having the heart left to pray. I wasn't immediately taken by “Called it a Day,” but there are now times I can't get it out of my head.

One of the two strongest performances on the album, “Stay With Me,” comes next (the opening chord sounds like the beginning of “Cold Irons Bound,” another Time Out of Mind tune). You can hear Dylan breathe before he starts singing, which adds to the intimacy of the production, and what follows is something that could have been pulled directly from the album Saved. When I hear Dylan sing “sinned,” I know he has lived this song. “Stay With Me” seems like a direct prayer to God, but Dylan confuses God with women, and this song could just as easily be viewed as pining for an old love, Shadows's leitmotif. “Stay With Me” was the clear highlight of Dylan's last tour, closing each concert, and from that perspective, it might even be directed to his fans.

“Why Try to Change Me Now?” is another song that could be directed to various parties, including his fans. And though it's not by Bob, it seems more autobiographical than anything Bob's written save references to the hills of Duluth. According to New York Times critic, Jon Pareles, it doesn't work, but it's one of my favorite songs on the album.

Pareles also doesn't care for “Some Enchanted Evening,” which is another one of my favorites. This song, unlike most of the others, is full of “listen to how he sings” moments (like the way he sings “own”). The final words, “once you have found her, never let her go,” recall “I Threw it All Away,” and emphasize that this album is also a journey through Dylan's past.

“Where are You?” is yet one more song that seems to be to a woman but sounds prayerful and could just as easily be a question to God. There are more echoes of the past (Street Legal) in, “When I gave you my love, was it all in vain?” There are also two references to “where is my happy ending?” which meant one thing when the song was originally written but has taken on a more risque definition in the twenty-first century. A lyric's meaning is not static, and as playful as Dylan can be, I'm certain he's aware of the modern connotations.

“What'll I Do?” is the third title on the album that's phrased as a question. There is much pining on Shadows, which is confronted directly in the astonishing closing song, “That Lucky Old Sun.” (Again, it could be heard as “Son.”) “Good Lord, above, can't you see I'm pining?” asks the song's narrator, as he begs to be taken from this world to a Heavenly Paradise. The performance is enough to move one to tears and there are already fans scheduling this track for their funerals. It's easily the best thing on an album I've described as a masterpiece and is one of Dylan's finest studio performances of all time.

Who's going to release a better album than Shadows this year? Nobody. It's a Grammy-worthy effort but I could see it being passed over completely at award time. That's OK. Dylan is best left to the ages.