Graham Reid | | 2 min read
No one should be surprised by this 36th studio album from 73-year old Dylan being covers of standards.
Even when he first appeared he was looking backwards (to old folk and blues), during his retreat in 66 he and the musicians who would become The Band played around on 50s pop and standards, he contributed a gorgeous version of You Belong To Me (from 52) to the Natural Born Killers soundtrack in 94, and on recent albums he's written ballads like Beyond the Horizon (on Modern Times) which sound closer to Bing Crosby (known as The Old Groaner) than any of the Bobs of previous decades.
The “new” Old Groaner here – self-produced and in a cover referencing classic Blue Note jazz albums – sings 10 songs associated with Frank Sinatra, who – like Dylan and Willie Nelson – sang behind the beat.
That Dylan does this so persuasively – cracked-heart ballads sung in that distinctive cracked voice – is the real surprise. And the elegant musical settings – no strings or cocktail piano here but soft horns, pedal steel guitar, a country flavour rather lounge-bar Sinatra – are never overblown.
He sinks into these discreetly astute musical settings for The Night We Called It Day and the keening pedal steel comfort of the seductively sleepy, quasi-religious and outstanding Stay With Me (“I grow cold, I grow weary, I go seeking shelter and I cry in the wind” which sounds like Bob in his Christian period).
He even makes the frequently threadbare Autumn Leaves into a brief reverie with gently dramatic spaciousness, and on Some Enchanted Evening he avoids the tendency to get swept up in a soaring, romantic arrangement. Rather he turns it into a melancholy rumination, throwing attention onto the singer's outsider position.
And Cy Coleman's love song lyric of Why Try To Change might be the most accidentally autobiographical lyrics here: “Why can't I be more conventional . . . people talk, people stare but I try, but that's not for me . . . let people wonder . . . don't you remember, I was always your clown, why to try change me now?”. It is undeniably beautiful and a reminder of the craftsmanship and influential genius of those often forgotten songwriters from before the rock'n'roll era..
Dylan's range might sound stretched as he slides towards notes, but – mostly on Sinatra's lesser known songs of regret and failed love, largely from the Forties and Fifties, there's no One For My Baby And More For The Road here folks – he delivers these intelligent, concise lyrics with understanding and understatement, as a careworn but wiser man in the late autumn of his days.
And right at the end he delivers a stately and soulful treatment of Lucky Old Sun which perhaps only a man of his age can properly interpret: "Send down that cloud with the silver lining and lift me to paradise. Show me that river, take me across and wash all my troubles away. Like that lucky old sun, give me nothing to do but roll around Heaven all day . . ."
This album will mean nothing to most people (many diehard Dylan folk-rock fans included) and Sinatra lovers won't find a new place to place their affection. But this is ineffably moving and Dylan has genuine empathy for the material.
A revelation of this singular man, his voice broken on the wheel of life, the refined songs and that oft-ignored songcraft.