Whenever Bob Dylan is brought up in conversation, his extensive repertoire of insightful, poetic lyrics, musicianship, and ability to reinvent himself every decade is overlooked by the myth that he cannot sing. His nasal whine and seemingly incoherent writing style are then repeatedly mimicked and imitated in the same hackneyed way, much like Bill Cosby’s pudding pop stutter. But I can live with the latter, for I at one point disliked Dylan’s voice, and had my own banal impression. What I despise, however, is when people dismiss Dylan’s talent because of his plugged-nose wail, and it makes me cringe when singers are glorified for their singing voices, but not judged on their overall musical ability.
Lately, when I hum or sing the words to Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love,” I’ll hear a friend proclaim, “Oh, I love Adele.” Some friends, along with my mother, are always shocked when I tell them, “Bob Dylan wrote that.” They can’t believe it, because nobody with a voice that bad can write a song that good. And of course, for them, Adele’s version reigns supreme, though it shouldn’t.
Dylan has always had an unappealing tone in his voice, but he knows what he’s capable of, and ultimately, his voice dictates his music. When he was young and had cleaner lungs, his voice was clear. He could hit the notes. With a thick growl he had the ability to plow through a song, but he could also loosen up and sound as if he were right next to the listener, whispering a ballad into their ear. And even though his voice has settled into a gremlin-like drawl, he’s been able to make music with it. A gritty voice calls for a gritty band, and he has that.
When I hear Dylan’s version of “Make You Feel My Love,” I believe it. His voice is raw, and he sings it simply, without unnecessary inflections. He doesn’t need to be flashy to convey emotion, because the lyrics do that. With overused rhymes, he phrases them in a way that makes the listener feel as if they’re hearing them for the first time. His subtle approach makes the song convincing and poignant; he makes use of what little he has and makes it powerful.
Adele, however, is a different story. There is nothing about her performance that makes me feel that she is singing with conviction. It has the ability to be powerful and moving – I get chills when I hear her sing – but that’s only because her voice is powerful and moving. I don’t believe her, nor do I believe she could go hungry. Not for love. And the lyrics end up being meaningless, because her voice fails to represent them. She’s a good singer, which is terrible, because good singers usually seem to over-sing, and much like a musician who over-plays, the song becomes dull.
Dylan has been able to survive through the years because he’s had more than a voice to offer. If Adele lost her voice, what would she have? She is not proficient in any instrument, she does not write the majority of her songs, and she has an uncontrollable fear of performing live. Without her voice she’d disappear, while Dylan will never fade, for he has created his voice through his lyrics, his musicianship, and his energy. Adele is a singer, but Dylan is a voice.