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IT’S WAY PAST time for a defense of Bob Dylan’s most recent album, Shadows in the Night, which is a collection of songs originally recorded by Frank Sinatra, many of them rather obscure. No one I know likes the album, not even hard-core Dylan fans. Newsweek convened a panel of “dads,” guys in their 50s and 60s, to listen to the record. Here is their reaction to the first song, “I’m a Fool to Want You:”
Andy: I hate it [snorts]. Really?
Mitch: This is painful.
Barry: How old is he now?
Barry: Any 73-year-old can’t hit the notes. But he never could hit the notes.
Let me respond by saying, first, that Dylan is an avant-gardist. He’s not only an avant-gardist, or he wouldn’t be famous, but he honestly chooses experimentation over security. Another way to put it: Dylan is drawn inexorably into the future. His last great album, Love and Theft, lifted a bunch of melodies from Tin Pan Alley songs circa 1911, combining them with themes from Confessions of a Yakuza by Junichi Saga. Sounds like a play performed in a basement in Chinatown with seventeen seats.
Even the title of this record is absurd. The phrase “shadows in the night” makes no sense. In darkness, a shadow is invisible. Plus the title suggests “Strangers in the Night,” the shmaltzy Frank Sinatra hit of 1966 — the same year our hero recorded Blonde on Blonde.
DYLAN CLAIMS to have great respect for Sinatra — and probably does — but there is no doubt that with his current voice, Dylan murders these standards. But by killing them, he brings them back to life. Dylan reinvents Sinatra’s songs, like a Cubist artist staring carefully at an ashtray and painting a canvas that looks like ricocheting rubber bands.
Humor permeates Dylan’s recordings, and Shadows in the Night is no exception. The brazenness with which Bob assaults “Autumn Leaves,” producing a rasp that sounds like a talking frog singing in a country-western bar in Laramie, Wyoming, is hilarious. It’s pure khutspe!
But Shadows is not just a joke, or merely an artistic exercise. Though it obliquely refers to TV shows like American Idol and The Voice, in which normal American contestants are slowly transformed into superstars, it’s also a record by the man who wrote “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” singing with pure conviction. Dylan’s voice, ruined by years of cigarettes and ceaseless touring, constantly toys with dissonance, but always returns to the melody. (All this against a nostalgic 1962-style musical backdrop.) Dylan walks a tightrope, and never slips.
By approaching these songs lovingly and carefully, Dylan is making numerous statements. One is that “cool” rock songs and “square” old standards are not so different. Elements of “Please Crawl Out Your Window” (from Blonde on Blonde) are quite conventional — it’s a love song, after all — while aspects of “That Lucky Old Sun” (from this album) are eccentric, even prophetic:
Show me that river; take me across.
Wash all my troubles away.
Like that lucky old sun, give me nothing to do
But roll around Heaven all day.
Sparrow plays ocarina in the non-Euclidean pop band Foamola. He wrote for us last week on Bazooka Joe Comics and their fortunes. Follow him on Twitter (@Sparrow14). How to Survive the Coming Collapse of Civilization (And Other Helpful Hints) is available from The Operating System.