In his latest album, Shadows in The Night, Bob Dylan sings ten songs to God. For Dylan, singing is the most authentic form of prayer. The songs aren’t his own but come from the Great American Songbook as filtered through Frank Sinatra’s inimitable voice. Why not Dylan’s own songs? And, if not his songs, why Sinatra’s?
To answer these questions, it is crucial to understand Dylan’s aim in the album. Dylan was after an album of allegorical love songs. This tradition started for him with “Visions of Johanna.” In that song Dylan is with the earthly Louise while yearning for the spiritual Johanna. The exact nature of Johanna's Godliness is not clear in the song. She could be God as represented by a female, or a metaphor as in the "Song of Songs" tradition, or one aspect of God, or a private way that Dylan experiences God. It is very likely that Robert Graves’ book The White Goddess influenced Dylan. That complex book is about a muse, a White Goddess, who was a single Goddess behind the various mythological goddesses. In his book Graves argues that “pure” poetry is linked to the White Goddess. That is, however Dylan formed the idea, he sometimes appears to be singing to a woman but in reality is singing also or exclusively to God. Other examples of his allegorical love songs include “Shelter From the Storm” and "Red River Shore."
Therefore, while it’s easy to hear the songs on Shadows in The Night as standard love songs, they are more resonant, closer to Dylan’s intentions, if they are heard as songs to a feminine representation of God.
That in part explains the use of Frank Sinatra’s songs. Sinatra provides a perfect counterpoint to the idea of woman as God because Sinatra could uniquely deliver love songs. That is, his songs were sung to woman as woman. Dylan takes these great love songs and uses them in a new way, expanding them, not just reinterpreting their sound but also their meaning.
Interpreted in this way, the Sinatra songs of romantic longing remain intact but suddenly also include a desperate plea, an intense spiritual longing. These are not the songs of Dylan on a spiritual quest or Dylan in the rapture of religious embrace. These are the songs of a lost God, of Dylan wondering why God has gone. A shadow in the night is a darker shade of what is already dark. These songs long for an absent God.
The album operates by looking at all angles of this longing. In “I’m a Fool to Want You” Dylan berates himself for even wanting God. In “Stay With Me,” just the opposite is true because “every path leads to Thee.” Dylan wants God to be near. “Autumn Leaves” sounds like a whole new song on the album. In “Why Try to Change Me Now,” Dylan begs God to accept him as he is: “Don’t you remember? I was always your clown.” It almost sounds as though Dylan wrote those lyrics. In “Where Are You” Dylan longs for the absent God.
There’s a crucial insight about belief in these songs. Religious belief is dynamic. It changes over time. Dylan believed, but God has abandoned him. And that’s why Dylan is not singing his own songs. The otherness of the songs is a metaphor for the distance he feels from God. He can’t even pray with his own words.
The real brilliance of the album’s song choices stems from the notion that God’s relationship with Dylan is exactly like the relationship between romantic partners. Such a relationship can change over time. Feelings can get close and then sometimes retreat. And so in singing to a gone God, it makes good sense to sing love songs of longing for reconciliation.
Dylan’s is a perfect voice for these songs. As many listeners have noted, his voice sounds fresh and clear. He doesn’t just sing; he begs. There is a plea in every song offered by a voice that has lived. It is a voice weighted down by the accumulated strains of life.
And then there’s “That Lucky Old Sun,” the final song on the album. Dylan sometimes ends an album with a hint about his future direction. If so, it is a sad direction home. In the song, Dylan is envious of the sun because it can “roll around Heaven all day.” The way Dylan sings it, it is a song of someone weary of life, someone who desires death. And yet his is a voice that won’t be stilled. His feet still move on to the next stop on the tour.
This is simply an incredible album.