Bob Dylan does it his way. Recording standards from the American Songbook has become as predictable a career move for everyone from Rod Stewart to Paul McCartney to Lady Gaga (with Tony Bennett) as cutting a Christmas album.
But Dylan - who also released the perverse holiday album Christmas In The Heart in 2009 - does not trod the well-worn path. All 10 songs on his new album, Shadows In The Night (Columbia ***) are associated with Frank Sinatra, but it is not a collection of ring-a-ding swing. Nor does it display even a smidgen of world-beating swagger. Instead, it focuses on songs from the heartbroken, borderline morose albums that Sinatra recorded in the 1950s with arranger Gordon Jenkins, such as Where Are You? (1957) and No One Cares (1959).
To fully absorb the Sinatrian ethos, Dylan recorded the album at Capitol Records studios in Los Angeles, site of the Chairman's greatest triumphs. But instead of employing a full orchestra, he cut them with his five-piece touring band, with Donnie Herron's ghostly, gleaming pedal-steel guitar being the instrumental focal point.
Does any of this make sense? Don't we listen to Bob Dylan albums to hear songs he wrote himself? We do. And isn't Dylan's ravaged voice an unattractive instrument seemingly ill-suited for romantic crooning? It is. But the respectful yet unconventional readings Dylan gives these epigrammatic tales of woe - "Where have you gone without me?" he sings; "I thought you cared about me?" - get down to their essence. And it also fits quite nicely with the wizened and world-weary outlook that has permeated his own latter-day body of work, from 1997's Time Out Of Mind to 2012's Tempest.
Dylan's affection for the source material - from the opening "I'm A Fool To Want You," which Sinatra cowrote about his relationship with his second wife, Ava Gardner, to Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do" and Jerome Moross and Carolyn Lee's "Stay With Me," which he performed at the piano as an encore on recent tour dates - is obvious. "To trash these songs would be sacrilegious," he told the AARP in a recent interview, ignoring the irony many people feel that he often commits the same crime against his own songs in concert.
Throughout, the known-to-sneer Dylan actually sings more - and more effectively - in his scarred voice than could be reasonably expected. Still, the album moves at a snail's pace, and some of the interpretations are strained. He simply does not have the vocal élan to pull off "Some Enchanted Evening," no matter how stripped-down the arrangement. But on the whole, Shadows In The Night is a moving, forthright affair that's a straightforward expression of sentiment from an artist who so often trades in misdirection. Alternatively, call it Dylan Does Sinatra, From The Heart.