Bob Dylan and the late Frank Sinatra might seem like the most unlikely musical pairing. To a superficial observer, the two could appear to have nothing in common other than being famous, American and from migrant groups (Dylan Ukrainian-Jewish, Sinatra Italian).
Nonetheless, Dylan has always been a Sinatra admirer, covert or otherwise. At a tribute concert for Sinatra’s 80th birthday in 1995 Bob’s contribution took the form, on Frank’s request, of a 1964 song he almost never performs – ‘Restless Farewell’, a song which may have touched Sinatra since its lyric bears some stray resemblance to that of his own rather better-known ‘My Way’.
‘My Way’, however, does not show up on ‘Shadows in the Night’, Dylan’s tribute album released in 2015, 17 years after Sinatra’s death in 1998. Nor should the curious expect to find ‘New York, New York’ or ‘Strangers in the Night’.
The best-known songs on the 10-track album are ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, plus a standard not necessarily associated with The Voice, the much-interpreted ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ (associated with, among many others, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash).
The other tracks are: ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’, ‘The Night We Called It a Day’, ‘Stay With Me’, ‘Why Try To Change Me Now?’, ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’, ‘Where Are You?’ and ‘What’ll I Do?’. None of these are among Sinatra’s best-known numbers, although ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ and ‘What’ll I Do?’ have both been covered by Linda Ronstadt. In particular, ‘Stay With Me’, from the soundtrack of a 1964 film, ‘The Cardinal’, was surely positively obscure until Bob Dylan laid hold on it. Taken as a whole, Dylan’s Sinatra harvest reveals a subtler and more nuanced side of the great vocalist than many might be familiar with.
Surprise though it may have landed as, this album is not totally without links with Dylan’s past. He has performed ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ live 25 times between 1985 and 2000 (though no-one knows if – some enchanted evening ? – his new arrangement of the song will show up on stage) Nor is the concept of a covers album new to the Dylan catalogue : this is his fifth release consisting entirely of interpretations of others’ songs, the last being ‘Christmas in the Heart’ from 2009.
Dylan debuted ‘Stay With Me’ live on 26 October 2014, at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. He has performed it at every concert since, in the encore slot. None of the other songs (eight remain unperformed in the Dylan annals) has yet shown up live, but we may live in hope.
The album has achieved both commercial and critical success. It reached No 7 on the US chart, and in the UK actually gave Dylan his eighth number one. Reviews have abounded, mostly favourable and some wellnigh ecstatic, arguably the best (and most musically erudite) being that by Ben Greenman in the ‘New Yorker’ (‘Bob Dylan’s Sinatra Album’, 3 February 2015 – www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/bob-dylans-sinatra-album).
Praise does, however, been somewhat less unqualified within Dylan’s hardcore fan circles: this suggests, though, that ‘Shadows in the Night’ may have appealed more broadly to the listening public than much of Bob Dylan’s recent output. Dylan and Sinatra both have big fan bases that do not always coincide – but adding the two fan bases together looks to have propelled the album up the charts.
That, however, can only have happened because this is a good album, if not indeed a remarkable one. Comparison validates its quality: Sinatra’s originals can all be downloaded, and listening to Bob’s and Frank’s performances one by one and side by side reveals both the carefulness of Sinatra’s vocal articulations and the tremendous effort Dylan has made, confessedly by dint of multiple listening, to replicate – but not imitate – them. Equally, to download the Sinatra tracks in Dylan’s sequence is to create … dare one say it? – a shadow album for ‘Shadows in the Night’, or indeed a ‘lost’ Sinatra album conjured into existence by Dylan’s magisterial gesture.
Many say today that Dylan’s voice is ‘shot’. Not on this album : this material suits the septuagenarian state of his voice, better perhaps than his more recent originals. On one song at least, ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ (a number of long-suffering lament more suited to Bob’s world than Frank’s), there is no doubt that Dylan outshines Sinatra – and on the rest it can reasonably be called a draw.
‘Shadows in the Night’ will shine in the Dylan canon as a totally unexpected, yet remarkably successful, late-career manifestation of the great songwriter’s intimate connection with his native popular music tradition. Dylan sings Sinatra Dylan’s way – and that late-Dylan voice does the Voice proud!