When artists die mid-career, they seal their creative selves in aspic, relieving us from having to watch them croak ignominiously towards their dotage. Bob Dylan, as one would expect from a singer who will always defy expectations, has denied us this, forcing us to work with him as he moves from standing with his guitar at the front of the stage to standing behind the piano somewhere at the back, tantalisingly out of view; from relating to his audience to ignoring it completely; from singing whole phrases to using economical, three-syllable motifs. Still, we come back for more.
Much has been written about Dylan's lyrics, but his recordings offer more than words. His extraordinary voice and delivery bind them to melody and his singing inspires, provokes and divides. When I want to remind myself of his glorious capacity to go beyond the horizon vocally, I listen to "Isis" for those swoops that lend accent and colour to the melody and the surprising, sermonising stresses.
Dylan well understands the emotional power of the voice - why the vocal performances of Sun Records artists such as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison pulsate with vitality; why, as he wrote in 2004, Johnny Cash's singing was "full-tilt and vibrant with danger". Dylan's voice is crafted from something similar.
All singers make stylistic choices. Dylan's are informed by the vocal qualities of the folk musicians he admires and the bluesmen and country singers he has soaked up. On the 1962 recording "Baby Let Me Follow You Down", the country-folk nasality and timbre, phrasing, trademark glissandi to and from notes and the pitched speak-singing are already there, though a little self-conscious, as if waiting for the summons from the muse. When that physical voice joins forces with the poetic voice on his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, something alchemical happens.
All of the early recordings place the voice up front in the mix. In songs that display what the writer Michael Gray calls "the genius of his singing", where the silences, sighs and audible intakes of oxygen contribute to what Dylan once described as "exercises in tonal breath-control", every word has clarity and is given its required length and pitch. …