Bob Dylan – Shadows in the Night (2015)

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Bob Dylan succeeds here by being Bob Dylan. He gives us an album of songbook-era songs, but no big band. A Frank Sinatra tribute, with none of his most familiar songs. A promise of jazz, with Americana instead.

Shadows in the Night, due February 3, 2015 via Columbia, is — at its foundation — what every great Bob Dylan album has always aspired to, and many of his worst have been sunk by: The opposite of what you thought it would be. Bob Dylan’s willingness to frustrate our desires, to know exactly what is anticipated and to do something else entirely, has made him the most interesting rock star there ever was. Also, the most confounding.

And so, we have Shadows in the Night, a nod to a style of songwriting that it once seemed Dylan himself had rendered obsolete. It’s sung in a quiet, country coo that couldn’t resemble less the silky-smooth crooners who once made these lines come alive — and played with a gentle genius by a rootsy group of first-take collaborators more prone to melancholy turns on pedal steel than string-laden swoons. Put another way, Shadows in the Night has far more in common with Willie Nelson’s Stardust than it ever will with Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me.

It shouldn’t work, and not just because Willie Nelson’s triumph was so definitive. It shouldn’t work because the principal thing that’s always made Dylan so galvanizing has been his fury. There’s a reason albums like Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks continue to resonate: Because few can put into a few serrated words so much bristling anger. He was always at his best when completely pissed.

And yet, Shadows in the Night somehow works anyway, largely because of that same steely resiliency. Bob Dylan once again has refused to yield to our expectations, showing a strength of resolve in an entirely more delicate manner, and in so doing creates something as surprising as it is charming. We’ve rarely heard him quite like this before, neither this vulnerable nor this exposed.

In the end, then, Shadows in the Night is no tribute to Frank Sinatra, at all — but one to a figure who has never, ever stopped moving forward. Even when it appears he’s looking back. In fact, singing someone else’s words seems to have brought out (still) another side of Bob Dylan, and pushed his own craft forward in a way that’s entirely in keeping — believe it or not — with a career propelled by such gutsy moves.

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