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.
brilliant, Richard; thank you
Tried to figure out why Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin works for me as overpoweringly emotional where Dylan’s new LP just seems like bad karaoke. Both singers are working with tragically shrunken range, and on some level shouldn’t be singing at all. I think the sordidness of BH’s life always contrasted so vividly with her material, and on LiS you finally get the sense that she has abandoned the pretense that life can be like the songs. She always expressed herself through the popular songs of the era. That was her medium. Dylan has always expressed himself thru his own songs. Reduced to being just a singer, the shortfall that we always overlook becomes all that we see.
Yes. In a nutshell.
Beautifully put, Richard. It’s strange and moving to hear Bob find himself in the world of pre rock’n’roll popular song. I find Stay With Me riveting as Dylan makes it one more step on his spiritual pilgrimage: hear his voice crack on “Like the lamb that in springtime wanders far from the fold, Comes the darkness and the frost, I get lost, I grow cold” Also wonderful is Lucky Old Sun, infusing it with the stoicism of the blues, and the uplift of gospel music: “Show me that river, take me across, And wash all my troubles away.” Songs of experience, indeed.
Meanwhile, in another city,
Dexter Gordon and Freddie Hubbard play “I’m a fool to want you” on Bluenote, as deep and as moving as Billie ever was.
I remember Mr D saying early in his career that he disliked songs with bridges (“show tunes”) and avoided their ilk. Should have held that thought close Bobby. Sunburned head more like.
Sorry Richard but I disagree with your view of Mr Zimmerman’s performance of the American songbook. I’m afraid in my own personal opinion Autumn Leaves by Bob or the awful version that Eric Clapton allowed to be released are, along with Annie Lennox crucifixion of God Bless The Child just abominable. It takes a certain singer to perform these songs, Frank Sinatra, Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughn, Ella et al. Dickie Pride recorded an album of these songs back in 1958 with the Ted Heath Orchestra that stands as the best of the English recordings of these songs. Bob Dylan is in my opinion, the greatest living poet we have right now but he should stay away form genres that he doesn’t have the chops to perform.
The weary fragility in Dylan’s voice on Autumn leaves, or the ache, the yearning in That Lucky Old Sun…What a wonderful album…
Thank you for putting in words what my brain has been trying to express since “Shadows” arrived a few days ago. Even before I read your piece I had played Autumn Leaves over and over. It is also quite refreshing to read a few negative comments. Anyone who loves Bob Dylan will have spent a portion of their life arguing with those that either didn’t get him at all or didn’t like a direction he had followed. For me no other living artist has given me so much. Like you I urge everyone to get hold of that fantastic interview in AARP magazine.
I love this album, after listening to it continually over the past couple of months. I’ve always upheld the view that Dylan’s voice (and his harmonica playing!) is on of his great under-appreciated skills. Like the “Blood On The Tracks” outtakes, his emotive, cracking tones are as full of untrammeled affect as any more ‘polished’ singer. Think of the New York “Tangled Up In Blue” sessions, for example. For me, the highlight is “Lucky Old Sun”, as affecting as “Blind Willie McTell” in it’s vulnerability. His voice is a marvel of unmediated emotion, and he is the oldest survivor, and still the most vital representative, of his generation. Comparisons with Sinatra are hardly inappropriate, surely?