Novelist Joyce Carol Oates once said Bob Dylan’s voice was the sound of sandpaper singing.
Wish I’d thought of that. It’s funny; it’s true. Oates did not mean it disparagingly. It was part of her tribute to the scruffy troubadour from the North Country. Here is the direct quote from Oates’ 2004 essay:
“When we first heard this raw, very young and seemingly untrained voice, frankly nasal, as if sandpaper could sing, the effect was dramatic and electrifying . . . Bob Dylan seemed to erupt out of nowhere. The power, originality and heartrending pathos of Blowin’ in the Wind, A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, Masters of War, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right were like nothing we’d encountered before.”
Yes, so true. Those timeless marvels were recorded in the early 1960s. They were just the beginning of the most extraordinary one-man songwriting era in American history. The apex of Dylan’s genius exploded like astonishing fireworks in the mid-1960s when he created a trilogy of albums of mind-bending, culture-changing, never-ending wonder: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde.
They were so unprecedented, so original, so brilliant that fans waited patiently with bated breath ever since then for another album to match the magisterial powers of that dazzling trio. It’s been a long wait – nearly half a century – filled with serious disappointments like Self Portrait, toss-off surprises like Nashville Skyline, forays into mysterious musical trails like John Wesley Harding, a masterly post-marital lament called Blood on the Tracks, a trio of greatly under-rated albums from his Christian phase (Saved, Shot of Love, Slow Train Coming), a few occasional triumphs like Desire and, much later, his “old-age” CDs – those gloomy reminders of tick-tock mortality like Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft.
None of those albums could match his 1960s achievements. He had set such a high standard they could not be topped by him or anybody else. Not even the Beatles. Everything afterward was bound to be disappointing to some degree. We might as well have asked Picasso to paint another Guernica.
But we diehard Dylan enthusiasts have learned not to wallow in disappointment, knowing any Dylan is better than none and delectable gems can be found even on his lackluster CDs (Brownsville Girl on Knocked Down Loaded). We’ve also learned some albums we once dismissed as duds we now hear (our old hearing restored like sight to the blind) as amazing (Street Legal). Everything Dylan has done is at least worth hearing. And hearing again. Thus, we come to his latest CD, Shadows in the Night, a collection of 10 classic ballads, all written long before Dylan burst upon the scene, all sung by Frank Sinatra, who is highly revered by Dylan. These are crooning hymns to lost love and the possibilities of love renewed. The songs are like poignant hopes and prayers – exactly the kind of laments Dylan has been singing since the breakup of his marriage to first wife Sara so many years ago, the trauma that sparked the blistering-but-bracing Blood on the Tracks.
Those who always hated Dylan’s voice will hate Shadows in the Night. Bully for them; they never did get it, never will. His voice, however, is not “sandpaper” this time around. It’s smoother, almost like – well – polished sandpaper. Tarnished silver. Rusted steel. As I’ve often said, Dylan would never make the Sunday choir, and I’m glad he didn’t audition. He has a pitch-perfect voice for the kinds of songs he sings, which aren’t “pretty” songs. He sings like Picasso painted – expressing messy realities transformed through art into beauty – and truth.
So far, I’ve heard Shadows three times. It didn’t knock my head off like so many Dylan works did, but it moves me very much. Dylan weaves his way through these songs like a world-weary man, alone in the wee hours, haunted by memories, aching nostalgia invading his heart, reliving memories of long-gone loves while sitting stranded, glass of bourbon in hand, at an ocean-side cocktail lounge in Honolulu. I say Honolulu because the CD is awash with pedal-steel guitar that summons up Hawaiian breezes.
Shadows is filled with the touch-and-go joys and pains, the astonishments, the somersaulting surprises of love, but they are underlined by a sweet brooding melancholy because this is an older man remembering them, not living them here and now, knowing they are gone, though a fading hope remains.
My personal favorites, so far, are Stay With Me, Why Try to Change Me Now? and Some Enchanted Evening, a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune I have long considered the most beautiful romantic love song ever written.
These songs – at least the way Dylan performs them – sound like an old man’s lullabies sung to himself as the end draws near. This incomparable singer-songwriter has always been fearless in confronting his own demons, his vulnerabilities, his losses, his own mortality.
Some listeners may find Shadows depressing. I find it to be life-affirming. It is yet another example of a peerless artist, sadder and wiser, giving us an evocation of life, bittersweet now because once so precious, still precious, summoned up as if almost from beyond the grave.