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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Sunday, November 07, 2010


Rebecca Ferguson sang 'To Make You Feel My Love' on X-Factor last night - so well as to redeem the song.

The detailing in her voice and delivery, her discretion and judgment in handling the dodgiest phrases in the lyric are a delight and a lesson to everyone else who's sung it. The first time the awful title line comes around, she sings "my love" - not "ma lurve" - with ineffable modesty. The vainglorious boasting of "you ain't seen nothing like me yet" and the hollow, lazy bathos of "No there's nothin' that I wouldn't do" are both made close to acceptable by an understatement that manages to claim back some rectitude that the song never had in the first place.

And then - and yet - there's the sheer imaginative freedom she lets loose at other moments - as when her voice soars joyously on "blue", yielding a thrill of surprise and bringing inventive complexities of meaning to the phrase "black and blue".

It's all soulful, heartfelt and disarming, with an utter lack of hamminess and an unwavering attentiveness. There are very few times when I prefer to hear someone else's version of a Dylan song. Despite the overblown, glutinous X-Factor setting, this is one of them:


Blogger Pope Leo said...

Well, well, Michael, I think that what your panegyric goes to show is how completely subjective music criticism really is. For me there is a complete disconnect between your overblown description of Ferguson’s singing and the actual experience of listening to the song. What I hear is a Norah Jones impression that is only marginally less bland than Norah Jones. If the song needs redeeming, then I think that Dylan has sometimes done that in live performance, when the gritty texture of his delivery has created an interesting tension with the clichéd sentimentality of the lyric. But that’s me being subjective. (I should point out that I don’t watch the X Factor – I have merely played the clip you posted – and perhaps am judging the performance out of context.)

6:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,
My partner had the same response as you, so in the ad break I played, the original and for me it is better (although his rasp was at times too much). However it led me to play for the first time in a while other & better tracks from the album. ..the intensity, nakedness & idiosyncratic flow of 'Standing in the Doorway' is, for me, deeply moving. On reflection, I think the album is the last one (to date) in which he exhibits the tremendous personal courage of his greatest work. Jack

7:24 pm  
Anonymous McHenry Boatride said...

I'm amazed that you could prefer that saccharine performance to Dylan's original. Original is the pertinent word - that X-Factor version was, as Frank remarks, derivative of so many others and lacked any personal spark. That reinforces all my prejudices about the show.

8:47 pm  
Anonymous Russell said...

I'm sort of indifferent to it as a version. It's not a train wreck, but neither does it re-imagine the song in any significant way.

On a different note, is this song getting close to being the one that makes Dylan the most money from cover versions?

Now if he can just get it on "Glee"!

12:54 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Well now. Let me say first that I appreciate the largely civilised tone of these demurrals so far.

Jack: you raise an interesting question: when did Dylan last exhibit "the tremendous personal courage of his greatest work"? I believe I know what you mean by that, though I wouldn't go along with the idea that work has to be in any way confessional to be artistically true, or brave.

Frank: surely it's odd to label something "overblown" when it's writing about discretion, understatement and rectitude? As for the Norah Jones comparison, well it came to my mind too - but only as it struck me how much more I enjoyed Rebecca Ferguson's artistry. I mentioned her "imaginative freedom" and that surely touches on the difference between them. It's probably not wholly Norah Jones' fault that you hear her records every time you step in a lift, but in any case the upshot of her overkill is that she's very predictable. You know exactly how she'll phrase a song, and that it'll be more studied than heartfelt. Rebecca Ferguson rises above that: her attentiveness never disables her soulful centre, and her freshness is a joy. The unpredictable isn't bland.

McHenry: what a pity we always have to disagree. But really: "sacharine" is a clumsy sort of a word to throw around here. I might have provoked your legitimate disagreement - but I did trouble to trace in some detail a good few specifics about this performance and some of its particular effects.

Frank & McHenry: gritty isn't always more authentic. Roy Orbison's voice on 'Cryin'' is truer than Johnny Cash's on 'It Ain't Me, Babe'. And when Dylan's performances lapse into hamminess he usually cranks up the grit quotient to do it. The smooth voice on, say, 'Copper Kettle' achieves a far greater authenticity than anything on, say, Together Through Life. Or on Bob's own 'To Make You Feel My Lurve'. There's such a thing as Untrue Grit.

4:39 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree, of course, that work does not have to be confessional to be courageous.

I have thought a little more about this-whilst 'Like a Rolling stone' is for for me a very brave song, 'Please Crawl out your Window' is not, as i think its a continuation of an attacking riff formed in earlier work.

6:33 pm  
Blogger Pope Leo said...

Michael, I’m sorry if you thought my use of the word ‘overblown’ was odd. In addition to the words quoted in your reply to me there were phrases such as “ineffable modesty”, “yielding a thrill of surprise” and “bringing inventive complexities”, etc. What I was trying to say was that your critique was somewhat hyperbolic in its praise of a performance that I found ordinary. I agree with your comments on Norah Jones, and did say that I found Ferguson less bland!

On the question of Dylan’s grittiness of texture, I was suggesting that there was an interesting conjunction of voice and lyric – the one playing against the other - in some of Dylan’s live performances of the song. I was making no claims of authenticity – a very tricky notion when applied to singing - and not necessarily (or at least not always) the key criterion in judging the worth of a performance.

7:51 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

"Untrue Grit". Heh heh! I like it!

It's odd to me that it takes a performance on X-Factor to "make you feel the lurve" for this song, Michael. Maybe the song has found its proper level?

Having said this, I think it's a good song for him to compose, particularly when it's surrounded on TOOM by a gang of heavyweights and dirges...

9:46 am  
Blogger jonathan law said...

Normally, I’m allergic to the kind of melismatic noodling that seems to have become the default mode for X-factor contenders (especially, it must be said, the female ones). Something about the way it combines an aseptic blandness (all those peprogrammed, quite predictable glides and swoops) with a big show of big messy emotions (you know, first you sing much too quiet and then you sing MUCH too loud). That this seems to have become the average punter’s idea of ‘good singing’ must say something about our general cultural condition, but I think I’d rather not speculate – I might end up sounding like Roger Scruton.

All that said, I really enjoyed the clip. Rebecca’s singing has all the superficial hallmarks of the style but somehow transcends it – you really do have to fall back on words like ‘freshness’. So full marks to you for spotting this, Michael: left to myself, I daresay I’d have closed my ears.

(As to the song itself, I’ve never bothered to form a strong opinion: it’s sort of pleasant, sort of annoying, and, yes, I’ve heard some quite effective live versions.)

4:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Disconnect your machismo for a second and consider that Dylan has written "Make you feel my Love" from the female perspective.

12:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Gray, I have two questions: Are we going to get a review from you of the Witmark Demos? and Are the mono recordings of his first albums worth buying? The Witmark demos have made me go back and really re-listen to his first albums. I would like to buy the mono recordings, but will I really tell the difference from what I already have? Any of your thoughts on either question would be appreciated.

7:07 pm  
Anonymous one-eyedundertaker said...

No mention of the Adele cover? Regardless of what you think of the limitations of the cover, what do you make of Slicer's juxtaposition of texts and photos with the lyrics?


5:28 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

I don't care for that kind of specious God-bothering, though it's cleverly done. As for the Adele version, well, the audio is carefully constructed and delivered, but it doesn't win me over - and when I watched her promo video of it on YouTube, I thought it was creepy. She makes it look and feel like the song of the stalker.

5:47 pm  

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