Thursday, June 11, 2015

Dylan's Voice

It seems redundant to apply more adjectives to Bob Dylan's singing voice-- easily the most infamous rasp in American music, a cultivated tangle of disdain and nicotine and bad love-- but it remains the defining characteristic of his work, as essential to his legacy as vowels or the acoustic guitar.
~Pitchfork reviewer

It’s Dylan himself, whose voice today shares certain tonal qualities with Tom Waits’s, and certain others with sputtering lawn-mower engines.
~Jody Rosen, The New Yorker

If you're a Dylan fan, you know how it goes because you read the reviews. One of the most recurring themes in music literature must be the ongoing effort by reviewers to comment on Bob Dylan's voice in a new and creative way. Even when he was young he had some critics in that area, but it's been especially so in his more recent albums, especially Tempest and Christmas in the Heart. I vaguely recall one reviewer saying "he must gargle each morning with broken glass" to get a voice like that. Or something to that effect. Chris Richards of the Washington Post described his voice as "gutteral braying."

Here's one from Vulture.com:
Bob Dylan has never had to rely on the purity of his croon to get his vocal point across. But as the years have gone by, the grit in the great man’s voice has gone from fine to extra-coarse, to put things in sandpaper terms.
~Dan Reilly

* * * *
Yesterday I was listening to the Travelling Wilbury's, noticing how distinctive Bob's voice was, but that all the voices were distinctive there and when harmonizing it was a pretty fetching blend. In the evening, while mowing the yard, that observation began to congeal into this thought: A distinctive voice sets you apart from the herd. Dylan achieved it early and it's been a trademark of his.

Jimmy Stewart had a pretty distinctive voice. So does James Earl Jones. Likewise Clint Eastwood.

When Jimmy Stewart is in a movie you just enjoy being in his presence. I wouldn't call it a beautiful voice, and in some ways if you wanted to be critical, you might say it's even a bit odd.

And who isn't moved by the gravity of James Earl Jones's vocal resonance.

This led me to think about singers with distinctive voices. Neil Young was first to come to mind. Not sure how to describe that tenor-high whine on songs like Helpless, but for sure his vocal sound was lie no one else's. Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, the list is long. Johnny Cash's sonorous bass produces such pleasures that if he were to sing, or even read, the phone book aloud one could enjoy the experience. (That's a bit of hyperbole.)

So, returning to Dylan, I think many of those who have been lifelong fans are unaware that Dylan's voice might be a bit odd. Rather, we notice how evocative it can be at conveying various emotions from tenderness to despair. It's only when we bring a friend to a concert who is unfamiliar with the current material, whose only exposure to Dylan might be some of his Sixties albums, that we glimpse in their shocked expressions the first clue that we don't hear him in the same way.

So when he sings, "I went to the Big Apple // took a bite" I laugh. I like it. Bring it on.  

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