Twenty years ago this autumn, Bob Dylan released the album that resurrected his career and his cool. Time Out of Mind saw the 56-year-old artist confronting “the dread realities of life”, exposing a ruined voice and broken heart in a spectral sonic soundscape. The cocky kid who once sneered “When you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose” now knew that: “When you think that you’ve lost everything/ You find out you can always lose a little more.”
Time Out of Mind became the blueprint for ageing rockers in quest of a credibility reboot. It won three Grammy Awards. Critics only found one clunker: the ninth track was “a spare ballad undermined by greetingcard lyrics”, sniffed Rolling Stone. Yet “Make You Feel My Love” has become a modern standard, regularly rolled out as a karaoke tearjerker by starry-eyed millennials whose ears have never been troubled by Dylan’s rasp.
They’re channelling the 2008 version that Adele recorded for her platinum-selling debut album, 19. It’s the only cover on that record, but it’s Adele’s favourite track. Her manager first played the song to her during a storm in New York. The young Londoner was “bitterly upset” by her own attempts at songwriting. She was consoled by the tender melody but couldn’t make out the words that Dylan delivered in a voice famously described by David Bowie as “like sand and glue”. Sitting down to read the lyrics, she felt his words “summed up exactly what I’d been trying to say in my songs. It’s about regretting not being with someone and it’s beautiful.”
“When the rain is blowin’ in your face/ And the whole world is on your case/ I could offer you a warm embrace/ To make you feel my love.”
The simple devotion of the song broke like sunshine through the roiling clouds of Time Out of Mind. Some Dylanologists argue that the song is about its composer’s 1992 divorce from his second wife. Others claim it’s about the Jewish Christian’s relationship with God. Like most of Dylan’s work, you can take it on as many levels as you want.
Dylan writes songs by “meditating” on old folk and blues numbers, playing them repeatedly until they morph into something new. He advises aspiring musicians to change key when a song isn’t working. “Make You Feel My Love” is in C sharp — unusual for Dylan — suggesting he spent some time chasing it into shape.
Although his recording sounds calm and controlled, the studio sessions that produced it were anything but. Producer Daniel Lanois, the technical perfectionist who gave U2 their widescreen atmospherics, struggled with Dylan’s chaotic and bullying behaviour. When their visions and egos conflicted, each man called in his own band, so 12 musicians could be playing at once and, as ever, Dylan refused to play a song the same way twice. Dylan laughed. Lanois smashed guitars. An organist with a gammy leg would occasionally topple over, mid-song.
Billy Joel and Garth Brooks instantly recognised the song as a standout single and both released covers under the slightly extended title, “To Make You Feel My Love”. Joel pounded it with meaty drums and Brooks slicked it to the top of the US Country chart. In 1998 Brooks’ wife Trisha Yearwood became the first of many female vocalists to cover the song. Since then, standouts include the deeply soulful version of X Factor’s Rebecca Ferguson (2010) and a delicately bruised take from Norway’s Ane Brun earlier this year. Bryan Ferry gave it a spare, morning-after treatment in 2007. Actor Jeremy Irons’ awful attempt in 2006 can only be excused on account of the thing being done for charity.
But, for now, the song seems inseparable from Adele. In concert, she has converted it into an all-purpose memorial and dedicated it to the memory of Amy Winehouse, the victims of the Brussels terrorist attack and the Grenfell Tower fire.
“Someone told me the other day that I had killed Bob Dylan with ‘Make You Feel My Love’,” she says. “I actually think I’ve saved him. He’s going to get about £1m out of that song . . . Maybe he’ll buy me a watch or something.”
We are interested to hear from our readers. Sincere love song, or ‘greetingcard lyrics’: what are your thoughts on ‘Make You Feel My Love’?
For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of the songs, go to ft.com/life-of-a-song.
‘The Life of a Song: The fascinating stories behind 50 of the world’s best-loved songs’, edited by David Cheal and Jan Dalley, is published by Brewer’s.
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