Bob Dylan Feb 19, 2015 12:47:49 GMT -5
Post by beatlies on Feb 19, 2015 12:47:49 GMT -5
Bob Dylan's older voice
Play a cover song for me
Feb 17th 2015, 17:27 BY J.C.T.
BOB DYLAN has usually been reluctant to talk about himself. This is a man who grants a handful of interviews per decade, the majority of which descend into philosophical posturing. So the forthright, 30-minute acceptance speech he gave when picking up the MusiCares Person of the Year award earlier this month came as a bit of a surprise.
“Some of the music critics say I can't sing,” he said. “I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don't these same critics say similar things about Tom Waits?”
Mr Dylan has always furnished his songs with thinly (and sometimes thickly) veiled retorts and regrets—but rarely has he presented himself as nakedly as this. He revealed anxieties that had only previously been hinted at, even in his 2004 memoir, "Chronicles", about being “three to five years beyond” his listeners, about producers who “didn't think much of [his] songs”, about the extra scrutiny heaped on him personally. “Why me Lord?” went his refrain, like a long-suffering Job, or a bewildered Brian of Nazareth. “Why me?”
Mr Dylan was particularly irked by attacks on his deteriorating voice. It is often claimed that he was never much of a singer—in fact, the orthodox position seems to be that he has always struggled with “a voice like sand and glue” (to borrow David Bowie's dubious tribute). That strikes this correspondent as unfair. The young man who whooped on “Positively Fourth Street”, crooned on “Lay Lady Lay” and murmured on “Don't Think Twice It's All Right” had a voice that could be every bit as supple and subtle as his pen.
The range has diminished, though. Like many of the singers Mr Dylan name-checked in his speech, he has a voice that has suffered from the inevitable strictures of getting old. As any doctor will tell you, an ageing larynx undergoes a number of debilitating changes, thanks to calcium deposits on stiffening cartilage, a thinning of the vocal folds, and atrophy in the laryngeal muscles. All of this is thought to begin between the ages of 68 and 74. The 73-year-old Mr Dylan might therefore have suffered more wear and tear than Mr Waits, eight years his junior, who can still punctuate his familiar growl with a clean falsetto.
But despite decades of strain, Mr Dylan is adamant that he can still sing. His recent speech attempted to shift the goalposts a little, with help from a Sam Cooke maxim—“voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are […] they matter only if they are telling the truth”—but he still challenged the claim that there was no beauty left in his voice at all. “Critics say I mangle my melodies, render my songs unrecognisable. Oh, really?”
To such reviewers Mr Dylan's decision to record a cover album of ten Frank Sinatra staples (“Shadows in the Night”, released on February 3rd) might look like a retreat. In recent years music-lovers have grown accustomed to such fare from the great singer-songwriters of the 1960s and ‘70s. Johnny Cash's last six albums consisted exclusively of covers, as did two of Neil Young's most recent offerings, and Mr Dylan acknowledged that “Rod [Stewart] and even Paul [McCartney] have done some of this kind of material”. In some respects, recording a cover album as an elder statesman of popular music can be a highly conservative (and self-indulgent) exercise: a chance to rearrange the canon and to wallow in favourites from a distant past. There's more leeway for a wavering voice when everyone already knows the tune, and nostalgia sells well.
When Mr Stewart rasps through the opening line of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”—“Someone told me long ago,” he croaks—it is easy to forgive him, not least because it is self-evidently true. But recording covers as a septuagenarian singer-songwriter is still a bold choice: there is no new material to hide behind, and all attention is directed towards the singing itself. With too many sub-par performances, nostalgia quickly wilts into pity. By picking Sinatra tunes, Mr Dylan has invited that pressure—and he copes with it admirably. There's a husky honesty to the love songs, with barely a note missed as we hear of romances been and gone, backed by melancholic slide guitars and sensuous hi-hats (all recorded live in gruelling sessions at Capitol Records late last year).
But it's in the defiant “Why Try to Change Me Now?” and “Stay With Me” that this album really distinguishes itself. With a directness rarely permitted by his own obscure lyrics—a directness that seems, quite suddenly, to have found a new appeal for him—Mr Dylan sings of ageing and decaying and a refusal to be bowed. Though “I go away weekends and leave my keys in the door”, though “People talk, people stare”, and though “I grope, and I blunder, and I'm weak, and I'm wrong”, the message is loud and clear: “Stay with me”. Thanks to singing this powerful, that prayer should be answered.