Friday, October 2, 2015

Shadows in the Night: Dylan’s Sinatra

Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty

The title of Bob Dylan’s latest CD, Shadows in the Night, may sound sinister until you listen to it and realize that the allusion is to the shades of romantic despair, not the shadows of film noir. This is Dylan’s Sinatra album: every song on it was recorded at one time by The Voice, though you have to be a genuine aficionado to recognize some of the cuts. They include only two by the most celebrated composers in the Great American Songbook: one by Irving Berlin (“What’ll I Do”), one by Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Some Enchanted Evening”). And though Dylan is going for the feel of the doomed-romantic concept albums Sinatra recorded for Capitol in the fifties, with evocative names like No One Cares and Point of No Return, In the Wee Small Hours and Only the Lonely, only a couple of the songs he’s selected actually appeared on them. Instead he draws on a variety of Sinatra ballads to assemble his own version of a Sinatra concept album. The project is a surprise in many ways. But not because you don’t expect that he’d love these songs; if you’ve read his autobiography, Chronicles, then you know that the breadth of his musical tastes stretches even beyond the genres for which he’s famous: rock, folk, country, blues. It’s a surprise partly because he’s never tried anything like it before – and because, approaching these numbers for the first time, he gets spookily close to them. Dylan isn’t trying to be Sinatra, but by the mysterious process of digging a trench for himself inside the heart-bruised lyrics and aching melody lines, he ends up inhabiting the emotions of every one of these songs.

Dylan’s vocals are accompanied by bass (supplied by Tony Garnier), a pair of guitars (Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball), percussion (George C. Receli) and Donny Herron’s gorgeously shimmering pedal steel, with trombones and French horn added on the two tracks that open the collection, “I’m a Fool to Want You” and “The Night We Called it a Day,” and trombone and trumpets on the last, “That Lucky Old Sun.” On the first of these, a lovely ballad that Sinatra himself co-wrote, the spare, mournful instrumentation sometimes seems to follow Dylan’s voice like a ghost as he uses the technical limitations of his melodic gifts – the familiar Dylan quaver and scratch – as a kind of emblem for depth of feeling. So, for example, the “me” on the phrase “pity me” is craggy, worn to the nub, and he holds onto the last note as if for dear life. You can see how he’s adapted Sinatra’s habit of altering the rhythm of a phrase for emotional effect: he slows down the second bridge, almost stopping it dead, forcing the song into a new, deflated rhythm. On “What’ll I Do?,” the quintessential twenties song of vanished love, the singer sounds as if he’d toppled off the path and is spinning hopelessly out of control.

Both “The Night We Called It a Day” and “Autumn Leaves,” with its plaintive Joseph Kosma music and Johnny Mercer’s translation of Jacques Prévert’s original French lyric, are offered quite simply and bittersweetly. “There wasn’t a thing left to say” before the end of the first gets that lonesome cowboy sound at the country-western end of Dylan’s expressive range. And “Autumn Leaves” is perhaps even sadder: it feels like the outpouring of a man walking alone on a deserted shore, and you hear the chill set in on “When autumn leaves start to fall.”

Two of the choices would seem almost upbeat – in sentiment if not in tempo – in a different context. “Some Enchanted Evening” isn’t really a torch song. Rodgers and Hammerstein placed it in the opening scene of their 1949 musical South Pacific, when the hero opens up to the heroine, gambling on the possibility that she might be sympathetic to his amorous overtures like a man walking a tightrope. But when Dylan sings it, he keeps slipping off the pitch, and at the end of the second verse he goes up rather than down on the last note. This may just be a mistake (it goes down at the end of the first verse), but he sounds as if he were reaching for something without enough faith to believe he has a chance in hell of getting it. This may be the most conventional tune on the album, but he steps all over it musically in a way that makes it weirdly affecting.

The other is “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” a pop version of the famous theme from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, which in this rendition has a honky-tonk sound until the vocal kicks in. Dylan’s singing, burrowing inside the lush melody, has an authentic romantic sweep; sometimes his phrasing softens and the result is magical – real love-dream-fulfillment stuff. The song is about acquiring love, not losing it. But the track that follows, Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson’s “Where Are You?,” could be the heartbroken second act to “Full Moon and Empty Arms”: the singer goes out to meet his lover in the moonlight and finds she’s disappeared, taking with her all the hope he sank into their romance. “I can’t believe we’re parted,” he sings. “Where Are You?” was written for an obscure late-thirties movie called Top of the Town, where it was introduced by the impassioned contralto Gertrude Niessen; her version skirted the melodramatic, though it was undeniably effective. When Sinatra took it up (it’s the title track of one of his Capitol discs), his naturalistic approach dried the sentimentality right out of it. Dylan leaps off the despair in Sinatra’s cover; it’s one of the most affecting covers on the album. At the end the pedal steel repeats the final riff – insistently, incredulously – and the lyric from the bridge rings in your ears: “When I gave you my love / Was it all in vain?”

I was delighted to see that Dylan had included “Why Try to Change Me Now,” one of my favorite Sinatra tracks. (It appears on No One Cares.) The unusual Joseph McCarthy lyric, set to Cy Coleman’s music, begins as the declaration of a clumsy and hapless soul who knows he can’t change, that he’ll forever be leaving his key in the door and spilling cigarette ashes and wandering off aimlessly. It’s a lovable-loser song, and it has tremendous charm; it doesn’t occur to the listener that the refrain, “Why try to change me now?,” might portend something serious. But the last verse, where the singer affirms his adoration of his lover, suddenly turns: “You know I’ll love you till the moon’s upside down / Don’t you remember I was always your clown?” – and you realize with a jolt that he’s been living on her whim, contented to be her patsy. When Sinatra sings that line, it shivers down your gullet like a shot of Campari, but Dylan does it differently. You can hear the melancholy in it from the outset; the guy has already been knocked flat by his hopeless attachment to a girl who could take him or leave him.

The two unexpected selections are “Stay with Me,” which Sinatra recorded on Sinatra 65, and “That Lucky Old Sun,” which more people probably know from the Louis Armstrong recording. (Frankie Laine did the original, in the fifties.) The first is a hymn about being lost and cold and weary along the sinner’s path and seeking shelter; it isn’t a romantic song, that’s for sure. And neither is the second, which rounds off the album. But the two songs are a pair: this singer, too, is looking for respite from his sorrowful existence. The enhanced instrumentation – the trumpets and trombones – give “That Lucky Old Sun” a kind of grandeur that Dylan’s vocal keeps undermining; on the second bridge, when he sings, “Lord up above / Don’t you know I’m pinin’,” he barely seems able to eke out the whole phrase without collapsing from the weight of his burden. Strange as these two additions to the collection may seem, in an essential way they fit the album, which is, after all, a plea for understanding for human foibles. Shadows in the Night is Dylan utterly without irony; that’s the other surprise. And it’s so unadorned – so humble – that it may take a second listen to hear it as he intended it to be heard. At that point it strikes right at the heart. I think it’s sublime.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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