It’s remarkable and maybe coincidental that we are in the middle of so many cultural controversies. Some more urgent than others. (American Sniper, Brian Williams, measles vaccinations…) I won’t go into any of those, don’t worry, hah. But I did want to take on another controversial subject: Bob Dylan.
Night and Day. Day and Night
At first it was going to be the simple task of reviewing his just-released album, “Shadows in the Night”. The cover art by the way, looks alternately like piano keys or jail bars. So. Maybe it’s not so simple..
But add into the mix Friday night’s acceptance speech where he was honored with MusiCare’s “Person of the Year” award.
It WAS an acceptance speech, briefly, and a warm one, but then it turned out, Zimmy had actually written an essay. He had the tell-tale sheave of papers. How long would this take? 30-plus minutes. This pre-Grammy event is the annual ceremony honoring musicians not only for their achievements in the music business, but in philanthropic work. Because it’s the Grammy-strangle, not a lot of video has emerged. But Consequence of Sound has some fan-vids HERE along with the setlist.
It was truly an all-star tribute. It featured several previous honorees. Among those honoring Dylan with his music were Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt (“cover-artist extraordinaire”), Beck, Jack White.
At this time, again, there is no audio or video available of the evening, in full, or the speech, but it’s worth your time to read a transcript courtesy of the LA Times.
It turns out, Dylan has heard all the complaints and honors heaped upon him over the decades. From going electric on a late July day in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival to that brief dip into born-again evangelical beliefs that befuddled fans and DID produce some outstanding music…to so many other puzzling and muse-following Bob Dylan activations. To being accused of not having a good singing voice, and one which sounds like the proverbial fingernails on chalkboard. In that MusiCares speech, he addresses the voice thing.
“Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, “Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.”
And THAT brings me to this latest Bob Dylan iteration. One that might be construed as “crooner”, if only because of this new collection of songs he and a 5-piece have been working on for some time now. It turns out Bob is “telling the truth”.
Introducing the Atmospheric Zimmy
Recently and ahead of the release for the new album, Bob Dylan famously arranged with AARP and their subscription magazine to include 50,000 randomly selected subscribers the new album and rather than giving an interview to, say Rolling Stone, it was to AARP. It proved to be a really revealing and thorough interview. Again, worth time to read it in full HERE.
The Essentials of Shadows in the Night
I got wind of the new Dylan project last year and was immediately interested. I love Frank Sinatra and I love Bob Dylan, full disclosure, though I recognize both might be an acquired taste due to several factors. I had an older brother who would listen into the night to Joan Baez by candlelight and that led to his Dylan thing. But both Frank and Bob are iconic artists each in their own way. They are equals. For different generations.
This new album? A collection of songs that are “covers” of 10 classic standards made famous by Frank Sinatra, including I’m a Fool to Want You, That Lucky Old Sun and Full Moon and Empty Arms. In the AARP interview, Dylan says:
The word “covers” has crept into the musical vernacular. Nobody would have understood it in the ’50s or ’60s. It’s kind of a belittling term. What does it mean when you cover something up? You hide it. I’ve never understood that term. Am I doing a bunch of covers? Well, yeah, if you say so.
It is NOT a cover album, but a deep dive into notes and moods and words. Ask anyone who “covers” songs. You have to discover and uncover. “Uncovered” is a better word.
A beautiful and wistful album, filled with rueful and wry regret arrived at from living 73 years on this blue orb, and yet reaching into an entirely different chapter for Dylan. Just like I thought when I first heard Nashville Skyline. His voice is simply amazing here. I gave the album to friend for a listen and comment. Violeta tells me, “His voice is like honey if it ever could…”
Dylan has re-envisioned the songs. They are NOT Sinatra songs. Frank had a hand in being co-writer only on one in this 10-song collection . They are derived from the Great American Songbook. Frank had arrangements for a 30-piece orchestra behind him. Dylan has a 5-piece.
We couldn’t match that and didn’t even try. What we had to do was fundamentally get to the bottom of what makes these songs alive. We took only the necessary parts to make that happen. In a case like this, you have to trust your own instincts.
Like many of us who listen to music with a critical and passionate ear, I was almost reluctant to hear the songs. O no. He’s gonna do “Autumn Leaves”? “Some Enchanted Evening”? Yikes. But. Here it is.
Violeta, who previewed the album with me also notes it is “cocktail by the fireplace mood”. And I also reached out to Terry Currier at Music Millennium. I know Terry listens to everything. Here are HIS thoughts.
I heard 1 song last spring and thought it was “a train wreck of an idea”….so far this week, I have stayed away from listening but I’m going to have to tonight before I leave….why oh why…OK….I went into the listen with an open mind. Was not a bad album. Is this what we want Dylan to do? No way. Did it totally suck as a record? No way. Will I pull it out 10 years from now when I’m itching to hear a great Dylan album? No way. If I was in a smoky bar or a cafe in France having a coffee or a bourbon on the rocks, this could work.
It all works. Dark and wistful as only someone looking back on a life and perhaps regret, can offer. Dylan, is yet again, carving out a new place in rock for himself. It is, indeed dark, and perhaps more suited to a dusky late night vibe. That is what I heard and that is what Terry and my friend also says. I leave you with a lyric-video of MY favorite song. It’s built from Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No 2. And in Dylan’s efforts to uncover? He does.
All these songs have classical music under-themes. Why? Because all these composers learned from classical music. They were composers who understood music theory, and they went to music academies. It could be a little piece of Mozart, Bach — Paul Simon did an entire song using a Bach melody — or it could be a piece of Beethoven or Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, or Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky. You can get a lot of great melodies listening to Tchaikovsky if you’re a commercial songwriter or composer, and these guys did that. Not that I myself recognize where these melodies and parts came from, but I know they came from somewhere in that direction. Most of these songs are written by two people, one for the music and one for the words.
In the end, it’s music, and music only. And Bob Dylan has entered into a new chapter of his incurably musical life. Following the muse.
By the way I am a big fan of my favorite music-industry insider, Bob Lefsetz. He has written an incisive front-row view of the evening. Check it HERE. He alternately makes me #sigh and then #agree. But mostly, he makes the case.