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Bob Dylan Compels and Haunts Through Voice & Song

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Bob Dylan Compels and Haunts Through Voice & Song

By Terry Roland

Bob Dylan’s Shadows in the Night is another revelation in a career that has set trends and influenced the musical landscape for over five decades. On this new release Dylan moves through the soundtrack that formed his childhood before he heard rock & roll, folk or blues music. However, he brings the same magic he once brought to these forms.

Clearly drawing from a tradition set by Willie Nelson on his decades old landmark Stardust sessions, this stirring homage to the American songbook of the first half of the 20th Century, is stark, reverent, contemplative and haunts long after the first listen.  Since he first took the stage, Dylan has been in the business of defying expectations and taking unpredictable turns into various styles and personas.  But, what lies beneath this collection of songs sewn together into a tapestry with Sinatra as his narrative thread, is the songster heart of one of America’s greatest living artists.

The songster tradition, where Dylan has found past inspiration and influence, grew before the outbreak of World War 1. It found street musicians in the Deep South championing the popular songs of the day without regard for genre. It was not unusual to find the street-corner vagabond and gypsy troubadour go from field chants, to saloon songs to popular hymns. These now anonymous artists paved the way for Big Bill Broonzy, Lead belly, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.

The songster tradition is the starting point for Shadows in the Night. However, the mystery tramp narrator we follow along with on these sessions has found his way to the mainstream pop songs of a decade obscured by time. He doesn’t croon, the treatment given these songs by most artists. Rather he contemplates these songs as though he were staring through a misty, mystical space-time lens into words and melodies that transcend any given age.

Shadows in the Night was recorded live in the studio in sequence resulting in a gentle and soothing continuity. The sessions are created with a musical foundation of the pillow-cloud-like drift of pedal steel guitar, soft strings, the easy brush of percussion and an elegant minimalist interplay of brass tastefully woven through each song.

However, the music provides a soft focus to the ragged, weary dreaminess in Dylan’s voice. It’s a voice that is far from gone. In fact, his voice is fully present here. The marriage of his vocal performance on songs like “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Autumn Leaves” and “What’ll I Do?” is a reminder of his affection for the songs and his skill as a singer. He makes no attempt to replicate the technical gloss Sinatra brought to these classics. Rather, he brings his own style that so many others have imitated, reminding us, that, like these songs, his voice cannot be replicated. The lack of technical prowess only adds to the vulnerability and contemplative nature of these interpretations. The ultimate payoff is found in a near mesmerizing arrangement and interpretation of “Luck Old Sun.”

While fans of Sinatra may not find themselves replacing Dylan’s collection with the classic originals, this may open new sonic pathways for those who have followed the artist down other roads of American music in the past. The biggest surprise about Shadows in the Night, however, is how risky and nearly absurd the project sounded in theory compared with how satisfying and compelling the results are. This album may not make Dylan many new fans, but it will certainly bring knowing affirmations from those who remain true believers. It is an album that is worthy of Bob Dylan’s considerable legacy.

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