You only need to pay close attention to the way Bob Dylan delivers the line about “the sunburned hands I used to hold” to understand the value of Shadows in the Night. For me, his version of “Autumn Leaves” is the album’s most fully realised song: against the subdued but glowing accompaniment of pedal steel, acoustic and electric guitars and bowed double bass, out of tempo for all but eight bars in the middle (which include the line quoted above), he immerses himself in Joseph Kosma’s gently falling tune and Johnny Mercer’s beautifully simple lyric and makes the combination, and the emotions they evoke, sound as real as anything he has ever sung.
That’s where he outflanks those who doubt the right of a man lacking in conventional vocal equipment to tackle these songs and to evoke so explicitly the memory of Frank Sinatra. They’re the ones who will point out that Sinatra listened to Jascha Heifetz and Tommy Dorsey and swam lengths underwater in order to develop his breath control, enabling him to deliver those long legato lines without a break. Lacking any of that technical equipment, Dylan brings it off. He makes me see those sunburned hands.
Once that’s accepted, the whole album starts to make sense. As outlined in this fascinating interview with the magazine of the American Association of Retired Persons, his basic decision was to reject the temptation to overdo the arrangements, even down to the omission of a piano, and to rely on the special approach developed by his excellent touring band over recent years. Thus he gives the album both an artistic focus and a freshness missing from most contemporary assaults on the Great American Songbook.
The thing of sliding gently in and out of tempo is a feature of the album. Although never played for drama (you might not even notice it happening), the device is used to stir the songs’ emotions. The approach requires, and gets, the highest degree of sensitivity from his musicians. On three tracks the simple arrangements for a brass trio (trumpet, trombone and French horn) add another unexpected shade to the palette of muted but glowing colours, reminding me of the effect of the horn chart Booker T. Jones created for the playout of “Georgia on My Mind” on Willie Nelson’s classic Stardust.
Dylan seldom shirks a challenge, and the biggest one here is the re-interpretation of “I’m a Fool to Want You”, a song inextricably linked to the doomed affair between Sinatra and Ava Gardner. It’s Sinatra’s confession of emotional helplessness, and probably no one else should attempt it. But Billie Holiday did, unforgettably, on Lady in Satin, and that’s another obstacle Dylan has to surmount. He chooses to open his album with it, too, as Holiday did hers, thus inviting an even more direct comparison. It doesn’t matter.
For me, the whole thing works — even the choice of “Some Enchanted Evening”, the most obvious example of the kind of sentimental romantic Rodgers-and-Hammerstein ballad the young Dylan was supposedly invented to banish for ever. But these observations on love are never obsolete. And in the end, after the shock of hearing Dylan tackle these chromatic melodies and moon-and-june rhymes, it’s impossible not to be moved as this 73-year-old man persuades us that, like Sinatra and Holiday, he knows all about the sweetness and the pain of which he sings. The sunburned hands. That’s what matters.