Bob Dylan vs. Frank Sinatra: Who Sang It Best?
When you've been around as long as Bob Dylan has, it must be easy for any artist to lose their edge and slip into a comfort zone of predictability, but then this isn't just any artist. In fact, it's difficult to bring to mind any other recording artist that has lasted more than 50 years in an industry as fickle as the music business and still managed to remain relevant in terms of their artistic output.
Given his last few outings, nobody could accuse Dylan of being predictable either. 2009 saw him release not one but two albums, one of which being an album of Christmas songs, while the other, Together Through Life, netted the veteran singer-songwriter a No.1 album on both sides of the Atlantic, an achievement that many artists these days can only dream of.
When his last album, Tempest, was released in 2012, some fans took the album's title as an ominous signal that it would be his last. The rumour, based on little more than the fact that The Tempest was the name of Shakespeare's final work, was give short shrift by the man himself and, really, we should have known better. This is, after all, one of the most prolific recording artists in history, releasing a staggering 35 studio albums. That doesn't even include the many live albums, compilations, bootlegs and other recorded works that Dylan has put his name to over the last five decades.
Next week (February 2nd) he releases studio album no. 36, and in typical Bob Dylan fashion, it's not entirely what you would have expected. Unusually for him, Shadows in the Night doesn't contain a single Bob Dylan composition. Instead, what he's produced is an album of songs made famous by one of his idols; the one and only Frank Sinatra.
Shadows in the Night's 10 tracks are what you would normally describe as cover versions, but he doesn't see it quite like that, saying in a written statement on his own website: “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.”
So how do they measure up? Well, broadly speaking these are stripped back versions of songs that were often arranged for 30-piece orchestras, but here they are mostly whittled down for a five- piece band. The result is an intimate and lovingly assembled record that features some of Dylan's best vocals in years.
Below we've picked five of the tracks at random and we ask: who sang it best – Dylan or Sinatra?
'Stay With Me'
The first track that was revealed from Shadows in the Night, 'Stay With Me' offered a glimpse of how a Bob Dylan / Frank Sinatra covers album might work, and the early signs were good. There's a strong country music influence at work on Dylan's version, awash with lap steel guitars that really are beautiful, underpinned with a deep and moody cello. It's glorious, but the problem here is that Sinatra's version is very, very tough to beat. It's often said that it's all in the phrasing with Sinatra but it's really combination of this, perfect technique and the ability to convey emotion on a level that collapses ceilings that makes him so special. This is harsh on Bob, but Frank just edges it here for us and, to be fair, Frank's version is probably the best anybody could manage. Frank 1, Bob 0.
'Full Moon and Empty Arms'
Sinatra's version sounds very Hollywood compared to the dusty, desert jazz of Dylan's, and while you can't deny that there's something majestic about all those big string flourishes on Sinatra's rendition, the interpretation here on Shadows in the Night is altogether more intimate and atmospheric, with its swooning guitars and a gently shuffling groove. We're chalking this one up as a win for Bob. Frank 1, Bob 1.
'Why Try To Change Me Now'
This is one of our favourites from Dylan's new LP and while Sinatra's rendition has the smooth, classy delivery you'd expect from Ol' Blue Eyes, Dylan's version transforms the song entirely. There's something about the song's lyrics that perfectly suit Dylan's louche, almost weary delivery and when he sings about cigarette ash falling on the floor it really paints a vivid picture that's all the more real coming from him. Without a doubt, we have to give the points to Bob here. Frank 1, Bob 2.
'Some Enchanted Evening'
As with so many of the tracks on Shadows in the Night, there's a level of intimacy here producing an atmosphere that you can almost reach out and touch. It doesn't quite have the bare vulnerability of some of the other tracks though and as much we enjoyed Dylan's version, on Sinatra's version he is absolutely soaring and it's hard to past the power and brilliance of Frank's delivery here. Frank 2, Bob 2.
'That Lucky Old Sun'
We're into the final round here and it's very tight. On the one hand, in terms of drama and scale Sinatra's version is out in front, but there's something much more nerve-jangling about Dylan's arrangement. It's restrained in a way that makes the hairs on the back of neck stand to attention. What separates them here is the context of the lyrics and unlike Sinatra, when Dylan sings 'worked like a devil for my pay' it really sounds like he means it and he's feeling the effects. It translates so well with Dylan's delivery that we've got to hand it Bob, this is just brilliant.
Final Scores: Frank 2, Bob 3.