Few things symbolize creative death as succinctly as the standards album, now a frequent terminal point for aging artists who seek to forestall the end of their productive output by capitalizing on the golden-hued nostalgia of bygone hits. Not so, of course, for Bob Dylan, who’s made an entire career out of defying expectations, and continues to willfully resist classification and fogeyism, even on an album of which 50,000 free copies will be issued to randomly chosen AARP members. The standard Dylan inscrutability ends up turning what could have been a straightforward snooze—10 covers of songs made famous by Frank Sinatra—into another eccentric, quietly effective outing, building on themes of melancholy and loss amid the less bombastic corners of Ol’ Blue Eyes’s early oeuvre. The result is reminiscent of the eclectic traditionalism of Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour program, with the artist slipping into the role of ghostly, gently sinister crooner as effortlessly as he fleshed out the myth of the ethereal pre-corporate disc jockey.
The songs featured on Shadows in the Night are far from Sinatra’s most recognizable material, more associated with the hazy, pre-modern era which preceded the singer’s most familiar period of mid-century bravado, rooted in the smart, sentimental balladry of Tin Pan Alley. More concerned with these songs’ workmanlike origins than any residual glamour which may surround them, Shadows in the Night fits logically into Dylan’s post Time Out of Mind era, from the poetic plagiarisms of Love and Theft to the old-fashioned balladry of Modern Times and the equally demented Christmas in the Heart, tweaking and updating material in danger of drifting off anonymously into history.
The album maintains an elegiac tone throughout, as Dylan balances out any hints of winking self-awareness by freighting his new compositions with a heavy air of wistful sadness, applying a sonic palette of slide and softly strummed acoustic guitars. Lead single “Full Moon and Empty Arms” updates a 1945 Buddy Kaye-penned hit, itself structured around Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2,” while “Autumn Leaves” reinterprets Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prévert’s “Les Feuilles Mortes,” a commonly reworked piece that’s appeared in a series of different permutations and languages. “That Lucky Old Sun,” which experienced a famous chart battle in 1949, with versions by Sinatra, Frankie Laine, Vaughn Monroe, and Louis Armstrong all receiving popular acclaim, gets another worthy revision here, its mournful work-song structure validated by the sounds of exhaustion in Dylan’s crinkled voice.
Rather than settle for one more cheap jukebox tour through well-worn material, Shadows in the Night deepens the innate sorrow of these old tunes by establishing them on a long, irregular continuum, possessing the same inherent mutability as the folk songs of Dylan’s early days. The result is a collective portrait of influence filtered down through the ages, working off the 73-year-old artist’s running theme of sounds and styles shifting as they trace their way down through time, the voices changing while the sentiment remains the same.