Bob Dylan, Fallen Angels
Photo: William Claxton

The Many Sounds of Bob Dylan’s Voice

Are Bob Dylan’s improved vocals in his later years a deliberate aesthetic choice? Has he re-focused his attention on the art of singing? 

Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan
Alma Har'el
Veeps, Apple TV+
18 July 2021
Shadow Kingdom
Bob Dylan
2 June 2023

The protean Bob Dylan is undergoing yet another late-career development. This time, it’s his voice, as evident in Shadow Kingdom, a 2021 concert film directed by Alma Har’el, rendered in black-and-white and its soundtrack released this month. Recorded over seven days at an undisclosed venue in Santa Monica, California, the highly-stylised feature shows a sprightly and poised Dylan who, half-hidden by smoky, chiaroscuro lighting, tackles songs from his early years.

Yet, as ever with Dylan, things are neither that straightforward nor, to quote the songwriter, “things aren’t what they were.” So, with that philosophy, coupled with his tendency to deconstruct songs in a live setting, preferably his own, his arrangements shift guises as readily as the man himself, leaving and then reappearing in different forms, something akin to a transfiguration. 

The stately rearrangements in the Shadow Kingdom film are in service of an older Dylan who half-sings and croons his way through a 50-minute set, delivering a vocal performance in excelsis. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; the year before saw the release of Dylan’s 39th studio album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, where, over insubstantial, hypnotic instrumentation, he sings clearly and pleasantly, as far removed from the blood-curdling vocal style heard on 2012’s Tempest—his previous album of original material. At the time of the recording, Dylan was 70, eight years younger than when he made the former record. With this transpiring at a late stage of his career, surely, then, his singing cannot have improved? Therein lies the question: is Dylan’s improved vocals a deliberate aesthetic choice? Has he re-focused his attention on singing? 

Whereas songs on Tempest are laden with blood feuds, avarice, and murders, songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways are mediative, contemplative, and liminal. Therefore, the songs demand a different response from their singer. However, it might not be as simple as the songs dictate the voice. In the interim, Dylan tackled the Great American Songbook, resulting in 2015’s Shadows in the Night, 2016’s Fallen Angels, and 2017’s Triplicate. Thus, perhaps, those albums (where the vocals are fundamentally the focus of the records) assisted him with finding a new way to sing his own material in whatever context. New or old, recorded or live. 

It is similar to the paradigm of Dylan returning to covering songs in order to learn the craft of songwriting further. Then, afterward, he moves forward to his own tracks for the desired effect. This is well-established, perhaps most notably in David Remnick’s The New Yorker article, “A Unified Field Theory of Bob Dylan“, published in 2022. To cite an example of this: the two folk albums of covers Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, released in 1992 and 1993, respectively, revitalised Dylan and possibly helped lead to 1997’s Time Out of Mind, which, in turn, birthed a late-career renaissance. Thus, if this practice can be applied to his songwriting, why not to his voice?

Dylan’s legacy is cemented. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say he changed the course of popular music in America; and, as its captain, steered the ship away from shallow waters into a sea of seemingly infinite possibilities. His influence is far-reaching. While on tour in France in 1964, the Beatles listened to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Dylan’s second album, released in 1963. “For three weeks in Paris, we didn’t stop playing it,” Lennon said. “We all went potty about Dylan.” As a result, in part, at least, John Lennon advanced from writing songs about teenage innocence to the somewhat elegiac “In My Life”, on 1965’s Rubber Soul album. Furthermore, there is an institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa; he can be mentioned in the same breath as T.S. Eliot, John Keats, and Ovid; and, in 2016, Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature for “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” This raised a few eyebrows of literary purists; somewhat dispelled when Dylan’s acceptance speech highlighted that literature began life as an oral form. Richard F. Thomas, Professor of the Classics at Harvard University, contextualises Dylan’s work in the Greco-Roman tradition in his 2017 book, Why Dylan Matters. Therefore, there is no disputing that Dylan is one of the great singer-songwriters. Yet there is one slight that comes to rear its ugly head: his voice.

I am not referring to the critics that view Bruce Springsteen as a muscle-bound, stadium-filling act who once wrote “Born in the U.S.A”, and that’s it. No, I mean erudite critics, such as David Benedict, whose The Guardian article, “Why Barb is better than Bob’s bark“—published in the same month of Barb Jungr’s 2002 album Every Grain of Sand: Barb Jungr Sings Bob Dylan—shows. He writes: “Dylan’s insistent whining is at the opposite end of the scale from – but just as bad as – technically flawless singers who make exquisitely honed sounds but cannot for the life of them communicate words and meaning.” 

In the ‘60s American pop music landscape, there were the mellifluous Simon and Garfunkel, or, say, the God-given harmonies of the Beach Boys. On the other hand, there was Dylan’s nasally whine. Dylan’s singing voice grated and antagonised people, as did his shrilling harmonica, rejoinders to journalists, and his going from acoustic folk to electric rock. But who could deliver a vitriolic vocal as the one on “Like a Rolling Stone”? Or masticate and elongate syllables as effectively as Dylan on Blonde on Blonde? Or, lastly, stress the sibilant effect of “times”, “rhymes”, and “chimes” ending each line in the first verse of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”?

That said, while in a Glaswegian hotel room during his 1966 World Tour, Dylan effectively demonstrated the versatility of his singing, as heard by a tape recording of him rehearsing new acoustic songs with Robbie Robertson in mind for the ABC-commissioned made-for-television film, Eat the Document, perhaps on the same day as he would challenge his fans on stage with his keening harmonica and unrelenting highly-strung vocals. The private rehearsal anticipates the syrupy tones found on his 1967 John Wesley Harding, which by the time he came around to record 1969’s Nashville Skyline, became a full-on country croon. And what about his warbling voice on 1970’s Self Portrait outtake, “Pretty Saro”? Pretty, indeed.

What many see as his Achilles’ heel could well be his Herculean strength. Dylan has used his voice as another form of creation, where he can slip into his narrators’ voices as an actor changes into his characters’ attire. Despite the cover of Dylan’s 1962 eponymous debut album—showing a cherubic face Dylan wearing a corduroy mariner’s cap, not looking a day older than his 20-year-old self—his gruff, Mid-Western twang on “House of the Risin’ Sun” could easily mistake one into thinking that he is twice his age, and has lived to tell the life-gone-wrong tale first-hand.

Furthermore, 1976’s Desire shows yet another side of the songwriter, with Dylan delivering a Jewish cantor-like vocal on “One More Cup of Coffee”. A few years later, Dylan, showing his appreciation for a diverse range of vocalists, spoke highly of the popular Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, who had died three years before. “I like Middle Eastern music a whole lot,” Dylan said to Ron Rosenbaum of Playboy magazine in 1978. “Umm Kulthum. She was a great Egyptian singer. I first heard of her when I was in Jerusalem.”

Singing as a born-again Christian, Dylan sounded possessed by the holy spirit; on “Blind Willie McTell”, his tone builds with intensity as he fulminates against the injustices of slavery. On the two folk albums, in the early ‘90s, his weary voice seems to rival that of the ages of the centuries-old songs, while later in that decade, a death-rattle voice moves through swampy guitars and gargling organs on Time Out of Mind; and, finally, 2001’s “Love & Theft” is shot through with sardonic wordplay, only a seasoned bard can reel off. 

When, in 2015, Dylan received MusiCares Person of the Year award, he delivered a 30-minute acceptance speech in which he said: “Critics have been giving me a hard time since day one. Critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don’t critics say that same thing about Tom Waits? Critics say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. Why don’t they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I get special treatment? Critics say I can’t carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. Really? I’ve never heard that said about Lou Reed. Why does he get to go scot-free?”

Overall, this current amelioration of his singing was perhaps first heard in his live shows. In 2018, Dylan premiered an unadorned ballad version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. For the first few minutes, Dylan is practically unaccompanied at a piano before a pizzicato double bass and snare-brushed-drum lift and borne the arrangement to its bittersweet coda. This trend of Dylan’s voice being at the forefront of the arrangements continued on Shadow Kingdom and for the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour, where he and his band are anything but, as you guessed, rough and rowdy. So, perhaps, now in his 80s, Dylan is showing in full display his most underrated instrument.

Works Cited

Benedict, David. “Why Barb is better than Bob’s bark“. The Guardian. 16 March 2022. 

The Beatles Anthology. Directed by Geoff Wonfor and Bob Smeaton. 1995. 6 February 2015. 

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016. 13 October 2016. 

Remnick, David. “A Unified Field Theory of Bob Dylan“. The New Yorker. 24 October 2022.

Rosenbaum, Ron. “Interview with Ron Rosenbaum”. Playboy. January 1978.