Shadows in the Night is an album that requires you to check your tablet device at the door.
It asks you to stop snarkily tweeting while tracking your ex’s doings online, to unlearn the crass language of interpersonal relations established over the past 50 years and re-enter an age where wistfulness was as close as pop came to emotional catharsis.
Vituperative backchat had probably been invented at cocktail parties by this point, but little of it had made its way into mass-market romantic song. If anyone talked to the hand, no one really mentioned it back then.
Septuagenarian bard Bob Dylan – the most famous man ever to go electric, thus ushering modern music as we know it – has set his latest album of American standards on some enchanted evening, a long time ago. Most of these 10 songs were written in the first half of the last century. They are all, in some way, associated with Frank Sinatra, the leading song-and-film man of the 1950s who managed to convey something of the pain of being all out of love to our foremothers – and the young Robert Zimmerman.
With a couple of exceptions – chiefly the album’s fantastically dolorous and well covered closer That Lucky Old Sun, which is closer in weary spirit to the blues – all the songs here span the gamut of being nostalgic for lost love, wistful about it or imbued with romantic regret. There is no anger, just resignation. The other exception, Some Enchanted Evening, is a cautionary tune from South Pacific about seizing love at first sight (Key gnomic Bobcat lyric: “Fools give you reasons/ Wise men never try”).
Stay With Me is not the Sam Smith hit of recent times (a tune so similar to a Tom Petty track that Smith and co had to give away a writing credit, it emerged last week). Rather, it’s a hymnal disguised as a love song. Dylan seizes on the devotional qualities with sonorous enthusiasm, recalling Leonard Cohen.
The pace of Shadows… doesn’t vary from a stately waltz time, even on the 4/4 tracks. The treatments are of a piece: Dylan’s lived-in croon to the fore, breathing close to the mic as his heroically discreet band swoon and groan around him. These are laudably ascetic treatments, recorded with no studio buffing, and marvellously devoid of the insulin spike of period orchestration. Some muted brass wanders in occasionally, while Donnie Herron’s pedal steel guitar supplants the traditional string section and the sound of a bowed bass adds mournful weight. “I heard the song of the spheres!” gargles Dylan on The Night We Called It a Day, but mostly, there is a mellifluousness to his delivery that speaks of his affection for these numbers.
If there’s a criticism of this songbook, one that’s rooted in modern times, it’s the ease with which some of this heartbreak goes down in the original versions – and in Dylan’s subsequent takes. Where Are You? glides and sighs with resigned equanimity. The protagonist wonders where love has gone, as though he’s lost a cufflink in a taxi; Dylan is true to the mood. Other songs hint more strongly at the roiling emotions that seem to have been inexpressible in polite entertainment at the time. The album’s killer opener, I’m a Fool to Want You(on which Sinatra had a rare co-write), comes down the ages invested with the angst of Sinatra’s affair with Ava Gardner; neither emerges a saint in the lyric. If anything, Dylan’s version recalls Billie Holiday’s slurred treatment.
Also resonant, also nuanced and similarly imbued with the scent of Gardner, The Night We Called It a Day brings the song’s bleakness to the fore. “The sun didn’t rise with the dawn,” he murmurs, and you know the world has literally ended.
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