Bob Dylan has never had to rely on the purity of his croon to get his vocal point across. But as the years have gone by, the grit in the great man’s voice has gone from fine to extra-coarse, to put things in sandpaper terms. (David Bowie terms, too: He famously compared Dylan’s voice to “sand and glue.”) Dylan has put his careworn vocal cords to a curious test on his newest album, Shadows in the Night, out February 3, which features songs made famous by Frank Sinatra and other golden-voiced singers. It sure seems like a bold choice, especially given his vocal limitations. For some medical background, Vulture reached out to otolaryngologist Dr. Milan Amin, director of the NYU Voice Center, to get a medical explanation for why Dylan's voice sounds so rough, and if there’s anything that could be done to get things back to their earlier vocal state.
1. Why Does He Sound Like That?
After listening to some of Shadows in the Night and comparing Dylan’s vocals to those he delivered on his classic ’60s hits, Amin noticed a few things. "The top part of Dylan's pitch range has dropped, so he can't access that," he says. "When he's trying to go up in his pitch with certain words and phrases, the voice gets rough. The other thing is that his whole tone is lower." That’s why the Dylan of today sounds a lot closer vocally to, say, Tom Waits’s wheezy Cookie Monster–isms then he does the Dylan of yore’s famed nasal honk. What’s happening physiologically, Amin explains, is that vocal cords are basically muscles underneath layers of collagen and a watery substance called hyaluronic acid. "As you get older, you lose muscle bulk. The layer starts to lose both collagen and hyaluronic acid, so the entire vocal fold sags, just like skin would. How you produce voice is by having the vocal folds come in contact with each other and blowing air past them, so if the vocal folds can't contact each other, then you can't produce as strong a sound." Hence the gurgly thinness in Dylan's current singing voice.
2. How’d His Voice Get That Way in the First Place?
Like many of his ’60s peers, Dylan was a smoker, and Amin says cigarettes can cause significant structural changes in the vocal cords, making them "fat and swollen," which results in gruffer sound. That said, Amin points to the vocal wear and tear of being a performing musician like Dylan as the likely cause of the legend’s vocal changes — this is a man whose famously been on a Never-Ending Tour for about 30 years now. "Musicians’ schedules are pretty bad,” Amin says. “They perform late, a lot of them end up eating after their performances and going straight to bed at 1 or 2 in the morning, so they go to sleep on a full stomach.” And that’s “a setup for acid reflux,” which can cause inflammation in the throat and voice-box region. Similarly, lack of sleep doesn’t give a singer’s “vocal cords a chance to recover." Amin also cites hanging around dry, dusty venues as being long-term damaging to vocal cords. "It's like your joints over time,” he says. “You get a little ding and they don't work like they used to. The surface lining of the vocal cords ends up getting little nicks, so they can't vibrate like they should."
3. Is His Vocal Damage Irreparable?
"That's the golden question," Amin says. There is reason for hope. Damaged vocal cords are "not a medical disorder," which means that they still have the capacity to "get what they used to get." So, how to get that? Surprisingly, practicing scales won't help. "The fast-twitch muscles in the vocal cords are not like other muscles — you can't build them up," says Amin. If you could, "singers would have these huge, fat vocal cords and wouldn't be able to breathe." A common solution instead is to work to build up a singer's airflow with exercises and behavioral modifications. Beyond that, there are surgical measures available that are comparable to wrinkle-softening collagen treatments. "You can inject materials that will essentially give the vocal folds more body," Amin says. "That can give you better contact between the cords and better volume. If you give the cords better volume, they can increase their pitch range."
There’s hope for you yet, Nashville Skyline fans!