If you care at all about Bob Dylan, you’ve known for some time now about “Shadows in the Night,” variously described as an album of pop standards and a tribute to Frank Sinatra, who had performed all the songs in question. Last May, Dylan posted his rendition of “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” a 1945 staple based on a Rachmaninoff riff, on YouTube. “Stay With Me,” written by Carolyn Leigh and Jerome Moross for a 1963 film score, was a set list staple on the autumn leg of Dylan’s Never Ending Tour.
“Shadows in the Night” includes those cuts and eight more along similar lines. Anyone curious about the album will have ample opportunity to read about it, as workaday critics and longtime Dylanologists alike scramble to analyze the disc’s meaning and motivation in print and online.
Really, though, there’s a simple, sure method to determine whether the album is for you. Cue up “Some Enchanted Evening,” the thrice-familiar smash from the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical “South Pacific.” Press play.
If you fixate on Dylan’s coarse tone, wandering pitch, and leisurely phrasing, then you can safely pass on the rest. Save your money and spare yourself the agitation. Your well-worn monaural copy of “Highway 61 Revisited” is still there for you.
If instead you’re touched by the humility of Dylan’s delivery — sweetly caressed by Charlie Sexton’s singing electric guitar and Donny Herron’s pedal steel, gently paced by Stu Kimball’s acoustic guitar strum and Tony Garnier’s purring double bass — then come on in. “Shadows in the Night” includes nine more examples of unlikely fealty.
Far from an indulgent wallow in saccharine nostalgia — and disproving absurd accusations of a quick-buck dip into a fountain of easygoing oldies a la Rod Stewart — the album is lean and subtle. Drummer George Receli, the remaining member of Dylan’s hard-touring band, offers minimal accents. A few tracks include spare yet radiant horn charts arranged by D. J. Harper. Producer Jack Frost essentially recorded the performances live in the studio, with a minimum of takes and no overdubs.
All of which might not prevent onlookers and admirers alike from wondering why a world-changing tunesmith would feel compelled to honor a pop-culture icon so readily caricatured as a louche crooner. But Dylan — who evidently has been mulling a standards project since Willie Nelson released “Stardust” in 1978 — answered that issue with atypical directness in an essential interview published by AARP The Magazine in January.
“When you start doing these songs, Frank’s got to be on your mind,” Dylan told his interviewer. “He had this ability to get inside of the song in a sort of a conversational way. Frank sang to you — not at you. I never wanted to be a singer that sings at somebody.” Listen without prejudice to Dylan as he underplays these pop staples with abundant affection (and immaculate diction!), and you can’t help but be persuaded by his vision of these songs as abiding vignettes, and of Sinatra as the singular interpreter who helped to make them stick. (Out Tuesday)
ESSENTIAL “What’ll I Do”Steve Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.