Dylan’s immaculate conception

by Bob Dylan (Columbia Records)

Immaculate. This album is immaculate. It’s also a perfect and possibly unconscious exemplar of an attitude that many young, rebellious bands can only aspire to – not giving a damn while simultaneously giving your all.

Let’s get the necessary informational bits out of the way before we dig into the appreciation. Shadows in the Night is Dylan’s 36th studio album, it went straight to number one in the United Kingdom, and it’s a collection of covers of songs that I’m told are predominantly associated with Frank Sinatra.

As someone who hasn’t really listened assiduously to Sinatra, this passed me by. So to me, Lucky Old Sun, for example, sounds like a dialogue with Johnny Cash, and I’m a Fool to Want You (the only song on the album actually co-written by Sinatra) riffs off the immense sadness of Billie Holiday’s version.

But this sort of attribution is irrelevant – these songs are all now pure Dylan, no matter which personal prism you choose to refract them through.

“Immaculate” is almost too ineffectual a word to describe the beautifully restrained execution by Dylan’s regular touring band. Every note, and even the occasional vocal glitch, seems to be entirely without embroidery, a perfectly pared poem of pedal steel guitar, a hint of high hats, elemental double bass and the odd horn. The songs create an atmosphere of louche melancholy, at times veering into wry nostalgia or downright sadness.

As with the absurd genius that was Dylan’s 2009 collection of Christmas songs, there are some naysayers who question why Dylan would release an album of crooner standards. Well, we should probably spell that neighsayers, as many criticisms are around Dylan’s distinctively cracked voice, memorably described on Bowie’s 1971 Song for Bob Dylan as “a voice of sand and glue”, and by Joyce Carol Oates in 2004 “as if sandpaper could sing”.

We’re way past defending Dylan’s voice by now, of course, but the conversation is relevant to the delivery of these standards. The plain fact is that they’re not Sinatra, and this album will never be put on repeat on the restaurant circuit. There is too much sadness in Dylan’s delivery, too much damage.

And there is too much of the truth Dylan speaks of in the anecdote he told at last week’s Musicare event: “Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said: ‘Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead, they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.’”

Unlike most other Dylan albums, the truths on Shadows in the Night are his translations of other writers’s truths. But in some mysterious transmogrification, they become Dylanesque. We could spend time wondering why Dylan has made yet another unexpected move, but instead we should absorb the lyrics of Some Enchanted Evening as Dylan’s answer: “Fools offer reasons, wise men never try.” And these words, from Why Try to Change Me Now, also seem eerily as if Dylan created them: “So, let people wonder, let ’em laugh, let ’em frown …/ Don’t you remember I was always your clown?/ Why try to change me now?”

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Chris Roper 1
Guest Author

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