Even though Bob Dylan’s Shadows in the Night may not wholly please die-hard fans or satisfy the curiosity of dilettantes, his latest studio album is already one of the most noteworthy records in his lengthy discography. Comprised of material closely associated with the archetypal crooner Frank Sinatra, these ten tracks are the definition of simplicity, recorded without overdubs under the production supervision of Dylan himself (in his guise of ‘Jack Frost’). It’s little surprise Bob’s road-tested band plays with understated confidence and authority, but the full extent to which that’s mirrored in Bob’s own singing is no small revelation.
The subtle decoration of trombone and French horn on “I’m A Fool to Want You” and “The Night We Called It A Day” highlights how Dylan has avoided overblown production. The appearance of both trumpet and trombone that sound a soft fanfare on “That Lucky Old Sun” (which he performed in the late eighties with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) comprise the only other sounds here sourced outside a group of musicians that’s been unusually stable for years and exhibits a chemistry to prove it.
The exquisitely picked and strummed dual guitars of Stu Kimball and Charlie Sexton might’ve received a bit more prominence, but that’s not to disparage Donny Herron’s contributions throughout this album: the versatile instrumentalist confines himself to pedal steel here, simultaneously brightening and focusing the arrangements of tracks like “Stay With Me.” while adding a palpable warmth to “Full Moon and Empty Arms” via the slow motion arch of the lines he lofts. Meanwhile, the ever-so-gentle touch from bassist Tony Garnier on bass and percussionist George Recelli accentuate the spare textures of arrangements.
Yet the most notable aspect of this project is the way Bob Dylan sings these songs. Bringing to bear a delicacy, poise and care he’s rarely afforded his own material on stage or in the studio in recent years, the clarity of the man’s vocals, if not its resonance, recalls that which he exhibited on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. By the time the ten tracks have finished playing, it’s clear the pleasure Dylan took in recording and producing these ten tracks is rooted as much, and perhaps more so, in the relish he brings to performing the material itself.
And as much as the concept of Shadows in the Night might lend itself to caricature, there’s not a whit of irony or tongue and cheek attitude on display within cuts like “Autumn Leaves” or “Some Enchanted Evening,” arguably the most well-known of the tunes. It’s almost as if Dylan’s daring listeners not to take his effort seriously, especially in hearing “Why Try to Change Me Now:” as with his 2009 Christmas in the Heart, Bob infuses this music with his own inscrutable, idiosyncratic personality, moving listeners in such a way he challenges expectations and preconceptions as he so often has during the course of his career. No doubt Shadows in the Night will surprise, delight and agitate in much the same way.