Bob Dylan has always defied expectations. He famously went electric when folk was acoustic and released the austere John Wesley Harding when electric psychedelia was in vogue (among many other career twists). With the release of his 36th album, Shadows in the Night, the 73-year-old music legend once again shows that he refuses to pander to anyone. The release of Shadows in the Night also raises an intriguing question: how important is cultural relevancy to artists such as Bob Dylan who challenge the cultural zeitgeist instead of reflecting it?
Dylan’s history of shaping popular tastes, particularly in the 1960s and ’70s, is well documented by writers far better than I am. The most recent phase of his career, in which he has entered the digital age, is also absorbing but for different reasons. Starting with the 1997 release of Time out of Mind, Dylan has enjoyed an artistic renaissance lasting longer than the entire careers of most fly-by-night pop acts. His songwriting during this period has explored themes ranging from vengeance to mortality, and he has melded musical idioms ranging from rockabilly to swing. Albums such as Love and Theft have earned him his strongest reviews since 1975’s Blood on the Tracks.
But 14 years into his final act, the world around him has changed. Albums, especially those released in compact-disc format, are archaic. Oh, hip musicians release them, but really only as a collection of random songs to support tours and merchandising — not as conceptual statements that succeed on their own merits. Instead, singles rule the day as they did, ironically, when Dylan arrived on the music scene decades ago. Being a successful artist means finding the “Gangnam Style” moment that will turn you into a fleeting Internet meme until a “Harlem Shake” comes along. Or becoming a celebrity by delivering over-the-top, fist-pumping moments on American Idol without really recording anything at all. Meantime, Dylan’s core audience, and the critics who anointed him into the halls of music royalty, are growing older. His fans and the music journalism elite, seeking a way to define him in a way that makes sense to their tastes, have cast him in the persona of the wise but frayed old minstrel, grinning while he spins truths and contemplates his own demise.
So how does Dylan respond? He digs back into his past (and I mean, way back) and releases a set of 10 songs that were written decades ago by writers whose names, for the most part, are (unfortunately) lost in the white noise of the digital age, unless you’re a Baby Boomer, a music historian, or a seasoned critic. He rejects modern recording techniques and relies on a live band that features instruments such as a pedal steel guitar and an upright bass, adding to the feel of an album recorded many years in the past. The most famous American songwriter in the history of rock doesn’t even pen a single tune on Shadows in the Night, and a man famous for his gravelly voice selects songs suited to the more polished crooners of yesteryear. (In fact, Shadows of the Night is an homage to Frank Sinatra.)
To promote the album, Dylan gave his first interview in three years — not to Pitchfork, Stereogum, or any other hip music publication with its finger on the pulse of modern rock culture for the digital generation. He didn’t even interview a music publication at all. Instead he chose AARP The Magazine, the official publication of the American Association of Retired Persons. In addition, 50,000 AARP The Magazine subscribers received a free copy of the album via compact disc. Talking with AARP was his idea, which elicited more than one head-scratching response. As NPR asked, “To Promote A New Album, Bob Dylan Gave His Only Interview To … The AARP?” Ann Brenoff of The Huffington Post wondered, “But AARP The Magazine? Really?”
Really. The AARP interview and promotion seemed to signal that Dylan is not so much ignoring the digital generation as honoring the fans who are growing older with him and are old enough to recognize the Great American Songbook he sings about on his new album. (AARP delivered more than 35 million potential listeners to Dylan, too.) He certainly is not pandering to digital culture. He does none of the things that aging rockers are supposed to do in order to ensure cultural relevance in the digital age. There are no collaborations with a hot contemporary producer to translate his sound to younger listeners, no duets with Jimmy Fallon, no Reddit Ask Many Anythings, and no Twitter hashtags.
“These songs have been written by people who went out of fashion years ago,” he told AARP The Magazine. “Certainly, the people who first heard these songs, like my parents and people like that, they’re not with us anymore.” He made a similar point February 6 during his acceptance speech for the MusicCares Man of the Year award.
Commenting on his career, he said, “These songs of mine, they’re like mystery plays, the kind Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now.”
On his website, he also gave some insight into the recording of Shadows in the Night. He observed that he rejected contemporary recording styles and tools. In fact, the album was recorded live:
It was all done live. Maybe one or two takes. No overdubbing. No vocal booths. No headphones. No separate tracking, and, for the most part, mixed as it was recorded. I don’t see myself as covering these songs in any way. They’ve been covered enough. Buried, as a matter a fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day.
Days after its February 3 release, Shadows in the Night has garnered several positive reviews, adding up to a score of 82 (“universal acclaim”) on critic aggregator site Metacritic. The strongest reviews have come from the established rock press: publications as Rolling Stone, which caters to a more seasoned, older audience. Meanwhile, Pitchfork, one of the Bibles of the hip and young music scene, delivered an amusingly confused review full of passive aggression. After asking “Is Bob Dylan trolling us?” writer Stephen M. Deusner notes, “And what do you know, Dylan can actually sing. Without sounding overly reverent, he croons persuasively, especially on ‘Why Try to Change Me Now'” . . . only to conclude that “for the more casual, less obsessive listener, [the album] can be a bit of a snooze.”
But Bob Dylan is not writing for Pitchfork. He is doing something far more risky and yet rewarding: writing his own legacy. When you write your own legacy, sometimes you find yourself out of step with popular culture, as Dylan has found himself at times in his career. It might sound odd to say this about someone whose art has been dissected as Dylan’s has, but I don’t believe anyone will fully appreciate Dylan’s power to shape cultural tastes for many decades yet. As Dylan says, his music is like a mystery, and the impact of a great artist cannot be properly assessed in a real-time Twitter stream. Bob Dylan does not create to be culturally relevant. He creates for himself.