Bob Dylan Looks To The Ageless American Songbook

Feb 3, 2015

Bob Dylan's unusual new album Shadows in the Night consists of ten cover versions of standards from the American Popular Songbook including "Autumn Leaves" and "Some Enchanted Evening." Dylan is accompanied by a five-piece band on songs that usually use orchestral accompaniment, and the singer has said the recordings were done live in "one or two takes." Fresh Air rock critic Ken Tucker says Dylan both infuses the songs with his personality, while also allowing them to be heard anew.

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This is FRESH AIR. I was surprised when I first heard that Bob Dylan was doing an album of songs from the American popular songbook, songs like "What'll I Do," "Some Enchanted Evening" and "The Night We Called It A Day." It's just been released. It's called "Shadows In The Night." Dylan has said the recordings were done live, in one or two takes. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, says Dylan infuses the songs with his personality while also allowing them to be heard anew.


BOB DYLAN: (Singing) There was a moon out in space, but a cloud drifted over its face. You kissed me and went on your way - the night we called it a day.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: It would be a mistake to think of "Shadows In The Night" as the work of a 73-year-old man reaching back to old songs in his old age. Dylan is still a vital songwriter and performer, and he approached this album of pop standards in a way that's novel for these times, with a five-piece band, without any radical new arrangements of the songs and with a sincerity laced with knowingness. As he sings here, why try to change him now?


DYLAN: (Singing) I'm sentimental, so I walk in the rain. I've got some habits even I can't explain. Could start for the corner, turn up in Spain. Why try to change me now?

TUCKER: That song, co-written by Broadway-great Cy Coleman, was recorded by Frank Sinatra - twice, in fact. Indeed, every song on "Shadows In The Night" has been recorded by Sinatra. But the album never comes across as anything so dreadful as a Sinatra tribute album. Instead, Dylan uses Sinatra as a kind of anthology editor, listening to Sinatra records, picking songs that he, Dylan, could feel a connection to and thereby offer you a chance to connect to them, too.


DYLAN: (Singing) Full moon and empty arms. The moon is there for us to share, but where are you? A night like this could weave a memory. And every kiss could start a dream for two. Full moon...

TUCKER: That may be my favorite cut on the album and Dylan's most unusual selection, a 1945 adaptation of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. I suspect that many people who don't like this album will ascribe their dislike to - what else? - Dylan's singing, with its aged cracks and croaks and rumbles. But, to me, and I also suspect many others, Dylan's singing is one element that makes me want to hear the chestnuts he's chosen once again. His five-piece band includes a pedal steel guitar, lending a ghostly, at times, country-blues tinge to songs that were never intended as such. Listen to the pedal steel, for instance, in "What'll I Do," written by Irving Berlin for a Broadway review.


DYLAN: (Singing) What'll I do when you are far away and I am blue? What'll I do? What'll I do when I am wondering who is kissing you? What'll I do?

TUCKER: I am not so invested in the cultural sanctity of the "Great American Songbook" that I would hear anything Dylan is doing here as traducing the work of tunesmiths of the pre-rock era. What I do hear is a Bob Dylan who has found yet another way to insist that all forms of pop music share a directness that can be ageless, timeless. I hear a Dylan who's in a mood to be moody, to tap into a romanticism his own work sometimes denies. It's as though he singing these songs to himself, even as he's singing them to you.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. Bob Dylan's new album of standards is called "Shadows In The Night." Tomorrow on our show, we'll talk about heroin is on the rise, yet most rehab programs are ignoring effective new treatments. That's what investigative journalist Jason Cherkis reports. We'll talk about his series, "Dying To Be Free," which is published in the Huffington Post. We've just made some changes to our podcast that we're really excited about, so this is a great time to check it out. It's free and easy to subscribe to on iTunes or your mobile podcast app. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.