It always drives me nuts when I hear people dismiss an artist of Bob Dylan’s magnitude with, “Sure, Dylan is a great poet, but I can’t stand his voice.” My response to this has always been to shrug and say, “Yeah, OK, but which voice?”
Are the doubters referring to the angry young man of folk records like The Times They Are a-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan?
Or “that thin wild mercury sound” of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde?
Or how about the proto-punk harlequin frontman figure of the incendiary electric tours through England with the Hawks, captured in Martin Scorsese’s majestic documentary, No Direction Home?
Or the ancient-seeming, all-seeing mystic of the legendary Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding?
What about the country crooner of Nashville Skyline?
The contented-seeming family man of New Morning?
The heartbroken troubadour of Blood on the Tracks?
The born-again gospel singer of Slow Train Coming?
The archivist of American folk tradition of Good as I Been to You?
Or the Rip Van Winkle of pop music, roaming the despairing landscapes of Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, Modern Times, and Tempest?
Dylan. For more than half a century the man has seemed to define artistic reinvention. I’ve been thinking about Dylan—our most protean, Picasso-like artist—a lot lately because February brings us the release of his latest album, Shadows in the Night. Dylan’s 36th studio record might mark the oddest turn yet in his discography (if we discount his foray into Perry Como territory with 2009’s holiday record, Christmas in the Heart); it’s a ten-song set of covers of tunes written and recorded prior to 1950, most originally popularized by Ole Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra.
Wait a minute, Dylan sings Sinatra? The man whose voice David Bowie once compared to “sand and glue?” The man John Updike described as having a “voice to scour a skillet with.” That’s right, and the result is nothing short of sublime. “I don’t see myself as covering these songs in any way,” Dylan said in a press release describing the record’s stripped down, five-piece band arrangements. “They’ve been covered enough. Buried as a matter of fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day.” In a five-star rave in the UK Telegraph, Neil McCormick calls Dylan’s singing here “delicate, tender, and precise,” and says of the album: “It is spooky, bittersweet, mesmerisingly moving and showcases the best singing from Bob Dylan in 25 years.”
In the 60s, Dylan famously told a reporter “I’m just as good a singer as Caruso...You have to listen closely.” Here, he proves it. Listening to Dylan cover chestnuts including “Stay with Me,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Where Are You?,” “Why Try to Change Me Now,” and “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” one is reminded that – leaving aside Ella Fitzgerald and Sinatra himself – there may be no greater phraser of song than Dylan. The man knows the dramatic weight of each word, and how twisting a single syllable can change the meaning of a line from an invitation to pity a breaking heart to a warning that a shiv is about to be delivered between the ribs.
On Shadows in the Night Dylan honors some of the songs he loves best and pays tribute to our shared popular music history. And he sings in a voice that’s sly and wise and full of world-weary longing. This is a brawny, original, self-invented voice as American as that of Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain or Muhammad Ali. It’s a voice that recalls, in the phrase of the great rock critic Greil Marcus, “the old, weird America.” It’s a voice that sounds as if Robert Johnson has just been sprung from the grave. And it’s a voice that, at 73 years young, our greatest and most mysterious artist has entirely earned.