Song of the Day #2,400: ‘Stay With Me’ – Bob Dylan

dylan_shadows_in_the_nightHalfway through February, I’m finally ready to put 2014 to bed. I’ll spend the rest of this week writing about a trio of new releases.

When I heard that Bob Dylan’s next album would be a collection of obscure songs once performed by Frank Sinatra, I can’t say I was surprised, exactly. This is the man who put out an old-fashioned Christmas album five years ago. Nothing he does is unexpected, because he does whatever the hell he wants.

Bob Dylan has a horrible voice, but he’s a great singer. That’s been true from the very beginning. Just listen to this rendition of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow,’ from his very first TV appearance, 51 years ago.

Compare his raspy croak to contemporaries like Simon & Garfunkel and The Byrds and it’s a jarring juxtaposition. But while his voice isn’t pretty, it’s riveting. His passion, authenticity and grit — not to mention his flawless phrasing — make those early performances unforgettable.

Dylan’s voice became more and more limited over the years, yet he has managed to release some of his finest albums during the past two decades. On 1997’s Time Out of Mind, his pained wheeze was the perfect instrument for lonely songs about mortality and loss. It earned him an Album of the Year Grammy (wonder what Kanye thought about that). Shockingly, it was the first time a record of his was nominated in that category.

His voice didn’t get any better on his next several albums — Love and Theft, Modern Times, Together Through Life, Christmas From the Heart and Tempest — but his singing did. The gravelly delivery was imbued with authority and wisdom, like the voice of God from on high. Sam Smith couldn’t sing any of those tracks — that would be like an ant battling an elephant.

I mention all of this because, to most people, the idea of Dylan covering Sinatra seems absurd on its face. One of the most celebrated voices of our time meets one of the most ridiculed. But forget the voices… these are two of the best singers of the last century.

And Bob Dylan, at 73, sings the hell out of these songs. He finds the sorrow and hope in every note, breathing new life into tracks long left untouched. Surprisingly, his voice hasn’t sounded this good in decades.

He performs these songs with a fabulous five-piece band, with pedal steel guitarist Donnie Herron adding sublime touches to every track. This is a lovely, sleepy listen. It’s one of the most delicate and touching things Dylan has ever recorded.

I bought Shadows in the Night because I’m a Bob Dylan completist. I’ll happily follow him down the craziest of paths, because he is one of the finest artists America has produced in any medium. What I didn’t expect was something so sincere and poignant.

Bob Dylan has a horrible voice, but he just released a beautiful album.

Should my heart not be humble, should my eyes fail to see,
Should my feet sometimes stumble on the way, stay with me.
Like the lamb that in springtime wanders far from the fold,
Comes the darkness and the frost, I get lost, I grow cold.I grow cold, I grow weary, and I know I have sinned,
And I go seeking shelter and I cry in the wind,
And though I grope and I blunder and I’m weak and I’m wrong,
Though the road buckles under where I walk, walk along
Till I find to my wonder every path leads to thee
All that I can do is pray, stay with me.

Stay with me.

3 thoughts on “Song of the Day #2,400: ‘Stay With Me’ – Bob Dylan

  1. Dana says:

    Back in the day, Dylan did not have a horrible voice, just an unusual one. Time has limited his range dramatically, but I agree that he has managed to put out some great material because, like more recent works of Leonard Cohn and Randy Newman, great songwriting is great songwriting.

    I disagree, however, that Dylan now is a great singer and, while he can certainly do whatever he wants at this point, I have no need to hear him interpret Christmas songs or Sinatra standards. Is today’s song “bad?” No, a great band and great production helps immeasurably. But is it just me or, as you listened, were you cringing just a bit wondering if Dylan would botch the tune or miss a note? For me, that’s more of a tense than pleasant listen.

  2. Clay says:

    I know what you mean, and during my first listen of the album I was a little bit on edge waiting for a crack. But surprisingly, he’s in fine voice throughout (by his standards). He didn’t pick any songs outside of his limited range and these are all quiet, somber tracks that lend themselves to a gentle performance. He’s more than capable of that.

    And I disagree that he’s no longer a great singer — he brings the good kind of suspense to a lot of these songs, teasing the meaning out of every line.

  3. Andrea Katz says:

    I share in your admiration and reverence for Dylan, but somewhere along the line he has not resonated with me as he did in the 60’s and 70’s. I totally love your perserverance in continuing to collect the Bard’s works. 🙂

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