Print Edition: April 8, 2015
Some music only works when the sky is black, the moon is high, and you’re three glasses deep into that scotch you thought you were saving for something. Bob Dylan’s new Shadows in the Night is one such example of music that requires a bummed-out, quiet mood. This can be disconcerting since Dylan’s music is usually good in any context, because it usually creates and manipulates the context; I mean, when you put Blonde on Blonde on for a spin, it becomes a Blonde on Blonde kind of day. Shadows in the Night fails to influence the present mood, and so if you don’t treat it as a reflective midnight affair you’ll only set yourself up for boredom and disappointment.
Assuming that you are listening when the mood is right, Shadows in the Night is a wonderful little collection of songs. All of the songs are covers of sad Sinatra-era pop tunes, and they manage not to fall apart under Dylan’s old-man voice. The old-man voice may in fact be the main thing the album has going for it; it allows Dylan to emote in an honest and corn-less way. It also gives the lyrics a little tension between naiveté and wisdom that you would never get from “good” singers like Michael Bublé.
Unfortunately, the tracks tend to run into one another if your attention wanders, since the arrangements don’t differ all that drastically. Nonetheless, there are definite stand-out tracks. The best of the bunch is “Why Try to Change Me Now,” in which Dylan sings, “I’m sentimental, so I walk in the rain / I’ve got some habits that I can’t explain / Could start for the corner, turn up in Spain / Why try to change me now?” Considering Dylan’s poetics of not giving a fuck about whether he’s doing anything different from what he’s done before, these lyrics paradoxically justify the choice to do an album of old pop covers. All is changing, and you can’t change that.
It helps to understand that all is change. Shadows in the Night consists entirely of songs about being left alone, meeting up again, and time’s constant, indifferent movement. If you find yourself inexplicably alone on some enchanted evening, pour some Dylan in your scotch glass. The meditation’ll be good for ya.