It’s about time Bob Dylan sings the standards. As an aging rock legend, he’s entitled to one holiday record and a crack or two at the Great American Songbook; with 2009’s Christmas From the Heart, a surprising continuation of his late-career hot streak, he checked the former box. On Shadows in the Night, the follow-up to 2012’s excellent Tempest, the master songwriter plays interpreter, tackling 10 sentimental ballads recorded by Frank Sinatra in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Producing under his Jack Frost pseudonym, Dylan ditches the orchestral fanfare for a more lonesome-cowboy style, with little more than acoustic bass, pedal steel, guitar and brushed percussion.
And, of course, that voice — one as famously divisive as Sinatra’s was universally loved. Over time, Dylan’s nasal wail has become a creaky bleat that he artfully wields on record, yet uses onstage to render his classics unrecognizable. But here, there’s little melody mangling. Beginning with the noirish opener “I’m a Fool to Want You,” he enunciates, sustains fraying notes and softens his Bob-ness just enough. He never comes close to Ol’ Blue Eyes’ cocked-fedora cool or silky masculinity, but he’s a 73-year-old chameleon for whom “crooner” is just one disguise. Even when he’s a little rough, stretching hoarse syllables on “Full Moon and Empty Arms” or straining for high notes on “Where Are You?,” he’s still smoother than many might expect.
None of this is that unexpected, though. Dylan has always loved American mythology and all things archaic, and his best songs on recent albums have been rooted in pre-rock pop. When he gets wistful on “The Night We Called It a Day” or grabs hold of moonbeams on the South Pacific favorite “Some Enchanted Evening,” he’s natural and sincere.
Making the most of Capitol’s Studio B — a Los Angeles landmark where Sinatra recorded — Dylan captures his band live, with stirring intimacy. As curator, he gets credit for avoiding obvious hits like “Stardust” and “Fly Me to the Moon,” instead picking “Why Try to Change Me Now?” and the show-stopping closer, “That Lucky Old Sun,” an old sufferer’s plea for relief. It’s one that Dylan clearly relates to and, over tasteful brass, the erstwhile bard of ’60s counterculture lets some elderly rawness creep in, singing like a guy who has seen it all and found truth in timeless poetry that belongs to everyone.
This story will appear in the Feb. 14 issue of Billboard.