“Singer/songwriter” has gradually come to be applied to nearly everyone who both writes and performs songs, especially if they happen to play guitar and are billed under their own names rather than as members of a band. But it used to have a particular meaning, in some cases, that was a little more specific: a singer who performed self-written songs that were meant for other people to sing, too. That’s a tradition that’s not nearly as active as it once was, although a few of its most high-profile practitioners are still putting words in other people’s mouths.
The most striking new example of that is the immense, intermittently marvelous Amnesty International benefit Chimes of Freedom, on which 75 artists cover songs from Bob Dylan’s catalogue. Dylan’s become famous enough as a performer that it’s possible to forget that the conventional wisdom about him early on was that he was an inspired songwriter who made strange, abrasive records, and in fact a lot of his early fame came from songs that he published in the folk-music magazine Broadside before he ever released recordings of them. (The folk revival of which Dylan was part was probably the final gasp of sheet music as an important medium for disseminating songs.) For the better part of the ’60s, he recorded demos for material meant to be sung by other artists: A new Dylan song was a feather in any band’s cap.
By now, as Chimes of Freedom demonstrates, the Dylan songbook has become the communal property of pop musicians. His songs are rich enough in potential meaning that they can easily be given an interpretive spin. Dylan’s own recording of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is a bird-flipping blast of testosterone; Ke$ha‘s reading on Chimes turns it into a gutted, heartbroken sob. And 92-year-old Pete Seeger‘s authoritative narration of “Forever Young” carries a lot of subtext about the two folksingers’ five-decade relationship, but it’s also more broadly an old man speaking to a younger generation.
In fact, Dylan’s songs are occasionally deeper than his versions of them suggest. One of the surprise standouts of Chimes of Freedom is the Belle Brigade‘s close-harmony country version of “No Time to Think” – a forgotten number from 1978′s Street-Legal with a billion verses and a cat’s-cradle rhyme scheme, which even Dylan has never played live. But the Belles clearly adore that song, and they even dig happily into each verse’s rhyming turnaround (“socialism! hypnotism! patriotism! materialism!”). It’s been sitting there for 34 years, waiting for someone to redeem it.
The most covered singer-songwriter number from the past few decades is arguably Leonard Cohen‘s “Hallelujah,” and Cohen’s always had a curious relationship with voices more beautiful than his solemn croak – Jennifer Warnes and Sharon Robinson have both performed with him for many years. His songs occasionally take a turn for the exceptionally personal, as on “Going Home,” the opener of his new album Old Ideas. (Its first verse – intoned, naturally, in the persona of God, for which Cohen’s voice is a convincing approximation – is “I love to speak with Leonard/ He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/ He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.”)
Mostly, though, they’re shaped for voices not his own, and a lot of his early songs are much better known in other artists’ interpretations than in his. Cohen’s last few albums have often had the feeling of simply being vehicles to get his songs into the hands of people who can do more with them, and although Old Ideas is artfully arranged in places, his close-miked rasp is by far the loudest thing on it. Some of its songs do seem like they could be impressive in a different way in another singer’s voice, too – especially “Amen,” a sort of inversion of “Hallelujah” that manages to pass off “the blood of the lamb” and “the eye of the camel” as a rhyme.
The version of the singer/songwriter ideal that Dylan and Cohen embody, though, has largely been supplanted by a version that’s about celebrating the idiosyncrasy of the songwriter’s voice – both lyrical and physical. See, for instance, Craig Finn‘s first solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes. Most of Finn’s earlier songs, with Lifter Puller and the Hold Steady, all but defied anyone else to sing them: They were built for his particular odd snarl and that particular band, with a shared body of settings and characters in their lyrics. Clear Heart has a much more “singer/songwriter” sort of sound, with Finn’s voice right up front and slightly subdued arrangements.
Nonetheless, it’s still a collection of songs meant to come out of a single person’s mouth, and to be performed in a particular way. “We all holed up in a hotel room from August to November/ It was Jackson, me and Stephanie, and the rest I don’t remember,” goes one typical line. That’s not a sentiment that’s open to interpretation – like most of Finn’s best lyrics, it’s a very specific observation – and not only would it not be improved by a more conventionally beautiful voice than Finn’s, it demands the particular squinty ugliness of his. Which is fine: His singularity is what’s special about him as a writer and performer. But it’d also be great to see more young artists creating songs that make sense from voices other than their own.