By Karthik Shankar:
‘All Along the Watchtower’ was the song that initiated me into the cult of Bob Dylan. It took me years to fall in love, but today, I don’t believe there is a better auteur on the musical scene. At the ripe old age of 73, American legend and anti-establishment hero, Bob Dylan shows no signs of slowing down. His latest album Shadows in the Night takes a page out of the Great American Songbook. Comprised entirely of covers of Frank Sinatra’s songs, Dylan is far removed from his politically charged tunes.
More than most albums, Shadows in the Night is a rumination on old age and mortality. Dylan dives headfirst into one of Sinatra’s jazz standards with I’m a Fool To Want You. The track sets the entire tone of the album. Dylan’s voice bursts with lilting emotion and the sombre background guitar twangs set a melancholy mood. Sinatra’s song was said to have been based on his relationship with Hollywood star Ava Gardner. In the hands of Dylan however, it transforms into a moody ballad about past regrets seen through the prism of wisdom acquired over years, more noir than romantic.
Even the second track, The Night We Called It A Day is a simple evocation of dates, decades ago, when young lovers met under the moonlight. This is a recurring theme across all the covers. Sinatra’s jazzy singles are torn apart, stripped down and deconstructed by Dylan. The modest background score allows Dylan’s ‘baring the soul’ vocals to take centre stage. In an age where pop songs drown in a cacophony of sounds and auto tune reigns supreme, Dylan’s stirringly simple tunes and folksy imperfect vocals are a pleasure.
However what separates this from yet another standard album release from a superstar beyond their prime is that Dylan is not trying to imitate his past songs. The songs reflect his age and his impending mortality and it’s an extremely mellow, albeit haunting effort from someone who made his name through anti-war paeans. In the track ‘Stay With Me’, he croons “I’ve grown old, I’ve grown weary. I know I have sinned.” Even though none of the songs are written by Dylan, it’s hard not to read these as extremely personal statements. The musician has courted controversy ever since he performed with an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival.
The album ends with The Lucky Old Sun. Dylan’s repeatedly implores “Take me to paradise.” If this is the singer basking in his final moments in the limelight, then it’s a fitting way to go out.
Some Dylan fans may be disappointed with this latest effort. Dylan’s last album Tempest was composed entirely of original songs and was one of his most distinctive efforts in years. Moreover, there’s nothing as stirring as the fourteen minute title track on that album which had Irish inspired melodies backing a poetic juxtaposition of man’s conscionable and animalistic instincts during the sinking of the Titanic. Dylan seems to understand that this album will not appeal to many among the legions of his fans. His only interview to promote the album was given to AARP, a magazine that caters to Americans above the age of fifty.
However to dismiss ‘Shadows In The Night’ as a lesser Dylan effort is unfair. The pleasures in Shadows may be sparser but they are pleasures nonetheless and to hear Dylan’s unfiltered vocals is a delight for any fan. Take a bow Mr Dylan, you who truly epitomised poetry in motion.