If asked to compose a list of famous singers who can’t really sing, most of us would put Bob Dylan towards the top of the list but I think that is an unfair assessment of his talents as a vocalist.
First, Bob Dylan was highly influenced by the blues singers of the 1920’s and 30’s and adopted a singing style that mimicked their phrasing, articulation and verbalization. Second, if you listen to albums like Nashville Skyline, it is clear that the man can sing in a “normal” tone too. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the song Lay Lady Lay before I knew it was him. This leads me to believe that the scooping into notes, the slurring of words and the awkward phrasing patterns are a conscious choice of Dylan’s.
What sets his vocals apart from his contemporaries (which is pretty much anyone who’s released a record in the past 50 years) is the honesty in his voice. You may not like how he sings but you have to believe what he sings. He is setting poetry to song and presenting it in the most honest, heart-felt manner possible. Few singers can acquire the depth and range of emotion in one song that he can in one verse.
Lastly, it cannot be overstated how influential his work has been on songwriters in any genre of popular music but it is often understated how influential his vocals actually are. Without Bob Dylan would we have Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Tom Waits, Tom Petty, or Louis Armstrong? Ok, we’d probably still have Louis and, if you wanted to argue with me, we could trace the roots of awesomely bad singers back to him but Dylan is still the influence most cited by singer/songwriters of the last half century.
Although many of his lyrics are superbly written, some of them depend on the delivery more than the content and in anyone elses hands the songs can never reach their full potential. I had the, well, opportunity of seeing him live last year alongside Wilco. I was dying to see Wilco and had always had Bob Dylan on my bucket list of concerts to see. Wilco was great, Dylan was disappointing.
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Live, in person, Bob Dylan doesn’t have the same honesty in his voice. He’s just walking through the motions. Every song begins to sound the same (mumble on a single note, jump up a fourth…mumble on a single note, jump up a fourth) and until he actually says “simple twist of fate” you have no idea what song he’s even performing.
I don’t have a problem with artists reimagining their songs for concerts but to take it to the level of unrecognizable, that’s taking it a bit too far. I urge you, even the casual Bob Dylan fan, to seek out a few tunes on record and just listen to how he’s singing. Listen for the heartache and emotion. It’s a remnant of the past live but on record it will last forever and should be cherished with each listen. If you accept the challenge, leave a comment with what song/album you went with and what your thoughts were on his performance.