I was not very diligent when it came to getting myself a copy of the penultimate Bob Dylan album, “Shadows in the Night.” Otherwise I would have run to the Amazon online store to pre-order it as soon as it was available. But the handful of covers of old songs sung by Sinatra did not particularly catch my attention, especially when none of the titles of the selected songs looked familiar to me. In fact I never got to buy it on my own initiative, but it was a gift someone gave me that I could never be grateful enough for.
The first time I heard it I did it lamely while devoting my time to other activities that would surely provide me a more immediate gratification. Or so I thought. One sometimes can be quite banal, even “snobbish.” My first impression was to welcome it strangely, as another daring feat of the famous curmudgeon, determined to demolish his legend. And I thought, “too gloomy, but anyway, it’s all right, he has more than earned the right to do what he pleases.” I said, “No matter, I’ll listen to it later more closely with the due respect it surely deserves. I have to put my five senses in the lyrics and the way he sings them.” And so I did. The next night I sat quietly and carefully listened to savor one by one each of the pieces of such a refined mosaic.
Why did I do it? First of all, as I said before, respect for the artist. Then, because, after so many years, I know that to get the real pleasure that understanding Dylan means, it is not enough just a first listen or a superficial approach. In fact, it’s necessary to penetrate the soul of the performer, chasing his rhymes to the last breath. No wonder the first time I heard “Visions of Johanna” I felt it was an unbearable litany. However, it soon ended up being as essential as “Desolation Row” and “Gates of Eden.” Those were meaningful songs. With them I came to understand that there is a peculiar beauty beyond the confines of reality and no matter how long one may argue about what is real and what is not, none of that does really matter within the place where Bob Dylan invites us.
Back to the main subject, what really matters is what happened after that. The gentle breeze of “I’m A Fool to Want You” lament was caressing my ears. The song evoked the warm tenderness and wrenching revelation of an unhealthy love that must be eradicated, but impossible to live without. The next cut uncovers the beautiful sadness in the evocative voice already worn out, transmitting the emotion of that bitter end in which the moon went down and the stars were gone, but the sun did not rise at dawn. There was nothing left to say, “The Night We Called It A Day.” All those heartbreak stories, hopeless loves that hurt and are at once unavoidable, sung with the mastering skillfulness of a gifted storyteller with a hoarse and pained voice and the extreme ability of a seasoned performer with the experience of half a century.
All of this was happening when the melancholy sound of the third track came to my ears, opening again my sense of perception as so many times before. I was mesmerized once again, though this time my thoughts ran along very different paths, back to a remote past that I could not even remember. The song, titled “Stay With Me” had made its live debut a few months earlier, played by Dylan in concert on October 26, 2014 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, CA. Naturally I had heard the live version and probably some later performance from the same tour that would have impressed me quite favorably. However, I had not devoted the necessary attention yet to the studio recording filling now the room of my apartment. Something in that interpretation moves me and suggests a more thorough analysis. I have to listen to it again to talk about it. I leave it by now till the end.
Bob Dylan’s album, Shadows In The Night, released on February 3, 2015
A selection of songs made famous by Frank Sinatra
I continue to pay attention to “Autumn Leaves”, full of nostalgia and melancholy. It is a rounded composition that Dylan sings with considerable conviction and an unprecedented mastery never seen this way before in his recording career. We might say it is undoubtedly the most successful performance of the disc, for those experts in vocal technique, along with the previous cut, “Stay With Me”, which we will discuss in depth later. Let’s not forget the title that closes the album, “That Lucky Old Sun”; that wonderful prayer of the poor exhausted worker who envies the sun for doing nothing but wandering around heaven all day. That’s a tune that Dylan sang with some frequency in ’86 and then in Madison ’91, where he did an unforgettable version. He sang it again, but never in a register even vaguely resembling the way he does it here on this record especially designed for music lovers. “Why Try To Change Me Now” is next in quality to these aforementioned cuts, talking about dreams lying on the ground. The old troubadour sings a complaint of a sentimental wanderer unable to be what he’s not. He’s singing it with veiled skepticism and a certain irony drawing on the indolent nature of his autumnal voice. It’s all about the impossibility for an unfortunate dreamer to lead a conventional life. The song refers to someone who accepts himself and accepts his fate, allowing people to speculate and laugh at him. Don’t you remember? I was always your clown. Why try to change me now? “Some Enchanted Evening” does not detract from the rest, but perhaps it is the track that had less impact on me throughout the album, along with “Where Are You”, even if the latter sense reminds me of “Lay Lady Lay” or “If I Threw It All Away.” Though I love the way he is humming that swinging tune when he says: “Who can explain it, who can tell you why? Fools give you reasons wise men never try.” It almost reminds me of a certain Christmas carol and has its magic.
The melody of “Full Moon and Empty Arms” wraps me in its romantic aspiration and leads me into another dimension. It works as a throwback to the 30’s, invoking a time that I never met except in the American movies. Its cadence gives way to the unfounded hope of a dream that, in the disenchanted voice of the outdated ‘crooner’ Dylan has become, sounds too illusory. Softly, the song, much more toned with the appearance of a sigh than with the formulation of a desire, wakes up in me emotions that have much to do with broken dreams. It also opens a loophole to the still remote possibility of a rewarding end:
“Full Moon and Empty Arms
Tonight I’ll use the magic moon to wish upon
And next full moon
If my one wish comes true
My empty arms will be filled with you”
However, in the current Dylan’s voice, as he uttered those words, the way he marks the breaks, how he phrases it in that warm and grave whisper, leaves the listener yielded to discouragement. Most likely there will not be another full moon, and if there is, one tends to believe those arms will still remain empty.
The first two times I heard “Where Are You?” it did not say too much to me. It’s a corny song, I thought, and although its performer strives to put all of his faith into the heart of this old tune the result seemed a little loose. What is surprising is that listening to it now several times in a row trying to find adjectives to describe my impressions, I just ended up admitting that there is a certain beauty in it. Has a taste of ripe fruit, reminder of a distant past. It is the sweet, sad scent of nostalgia. I tried to express what the nuances that the veteran artist of Columbia incorporates on his version suggest. But in the end it didn’t matter, because what really transcends is not the quality of his performance, but the patina of time. I mean that old flavor that not only belongs to the song itself but to the very nature of the voice that interprets it.
Next is about the penultimate track. What’ll I do when you’re far away and I am blue? What’ll I do? When I am wondering who is kissing you what’ll I do? I know what you’re going to tell me, could be a song by José Luis Perales. It may appear so. But it’s not like that. Not such a kind of song, at least not in Dylan’s voice. While listening to this stanza:
“What’ll I Do with just a photograph
To tell my troubles to?
When I’m alone
With only dreams of you
That will not come true
What’ll I do?”
We can see that haunting image of the subject drowning his sorrow at the only one photo he possesses of his beloved one. That’s a passage that hardly fits into the idea that I have of the Spanish singer. And I say that without involving any contempt for the work of the songwriter from Castejon (Cuenca). But for me “What’ll I Do” is not among the best cuts of the disc, either. I have already mentioned the most remarkable ones and it only remains to be said, before analyzing my favorite song from the CD, that the finishing touch comes with “That Lucky Old Sun” in a masterful performance. Bob Dylan usually ends his studio albums with a significant track, generally of high quality. And this “Shadows in the Night” is no exception.
Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan
I had seen “The Cardinal” many years ago, but could not remember the argument. I was warned that the main theme on the soundtrack of the film was the tune of that “Stay With Me” which was performed by Dylan at his Hollywood concert. I was also informed that the song belonged to his then new album, “Shadows in the Night”, something I was not aware of yet. Equally, it was also announced to me that the content of the film probably had much to do with the decision of the singular performer to include the song in his last work. For that reason I decided to see the movie again and I’ve seen it once more now to have it fresh in my mind as I write about this piece which seems to me the soul of the disc.
The cinematographic work is about faith and loyalty, not only the Catholic faith, but faith in one’s own convictions and loyalty to principles. This is a complex and ambitious film about the power of church and the powers that be, in the socio-political aspect. Nationalism, totalitarianism, racism and discrimination of any kind are severely criticized in the movie. On a personal level it runs between existential doubt, the reaffirmation of faith to overcome weakness and the loyalty. Basically it raises the dilemma of choosing between faith, loyalty to principles, or loyalty to the people who trusted us. And it is in the moments when the question arises that the main theme appears on the soundtrack. The same melody starts again whenever loyalty to a human being becomes the main subject, whether referring to friendship, fraternity or humanitarian devotion.
And indeed the song moves between these two issues, faith and loyalty, which appear to be linked with each other in the plot. A closer look at the lyrics reveals that it is written as a prayer. The doubts about faith, existential concerns and weakness, give way to feelings of loneliness and then weariness and despair ensue and know only one consolation: the continued support and loyalty of those we trust, whether God or anybody else.
Another interesting factor that dominates the film and is seen in the first line of the song is the internal struggle between humility and ambition.
I firmly believe that Bob Dylan knew the film well and effectively choosing “Stay With Me” was conditioned by the theme of the film and the use of that melody made on the soundtrack. Hence the performance of the controversial ‘crooner’ highlights moments of weakness and does not seem to seek shelter in faith and trust on high through humility and prayer, as suggested in the lyrics. But instead, seems to have more confidence in the loyalty of his fans who remained faithful, in spite of everything.
It is revealing the way he pronounces this:
“And I go seeking shelter
And I cry in the wind”
And how very seriously he intones the final stanza:
“Though the road buckles under
Where I walk, I walk alone
Till I find to my wonder
Every path leads to Thee
All that I can do is pray
Stay With Me
Stay With Me”
In the film, when the sister of the future Cardinal receives a slap from her mother for initiating a courtship with an individual of Jewish origin and the mother insults her by calling her ‘slut’, the girl runs upstairs to find shelter in her bedroom. Brother priest comes up to comfort her and tells her as he embraces her:
“Remember when you were a little girl and I hugged you and said: ‘Hold me tight and no matter what happens hang on me and never let me go’?”
The music of this ballad sounds again when Mona, the girl, confesses to her brother that she had carnal relations with the Jewish guy. The priest, based on his Catholic faith, rejects any option other than repentance, compelling her to leave her boyfriend forever. Offended and betrayed when she tried to cling to him to save herself, Mona fled in horror without receiving absolution.
That is exactly the same feeling that I perceive in Dylan’s performance. And it is what I think Dylan conveys in his version of this song which, in his hoarse lament, becomes sublime. The fear of not being understood, feeling rejected, betrayed. But more than a prayer, it sounds like a plea when he says: “All I can do is pray”. And it seems to me I hear him say, “Hang on me and never let me go, stay with me, stay with me.”
The Hipnotist Collector