Somewhere in ancient scripture, it is written, “A fool is he who underestimates the poignant pulling power of the guitar.” Over the years Bob Dylan has embodied this bygone idiom, that I just made up, by singing more autobiographical songs of love and love-lost than a particularly shy bird has twittered half-notes from a treetop. He may have been championed the voice of a generation for his societal incision and profuse propagation of protest songs, but the token title of a modern-day Casanova may well have been more apt for the iconoclastic lothario.
With the ability to pen poetic lines like, “The future for me is already a thing of the past / You were my first love, and you will be my last,” it’s easy to see how he’s induced so many swoons. On the other hand, with lines such as, “You can’t be wise and in love at the same time,” it’s equally easy to see how quite so many serenades have raced through the sanguine notes of C, F and G, towards the soured end of the scale.
In short, the troubadour has traversed more scrapes with cupid than a long-running sitcom character. His candid yet universal tales are borne from this realm of smitten smiles. His pen certainly races when he is scorned, but it is far from ponderous when moved with affection either.
In fact, whether you’re fresh from a breakup or falling head over heels, it is often the sepia-toned songs of Dylan that you turn to. As he has said himself, he hated being dubbed the voice of a generation because his songs weren’t about politics, they were about everything, but quite often, even Bob would have to admit, they’re about love and only love. Below we’ve collated ten of the best of them.
Bob Dylan’s 10 greatest love songs:
10. ‘Make You Feel My Love’
While Bob Dylan’s voice of sand and glue might be a thorough power-wash away from the silken tones of Adele who made his latter-day anthem ‘Make You Feel My Love’ a huge hit, Dylan still croaks it out with enough sincerity to send the message home ever so sweetly.
As ever with Dylan’s love songs, there is a grandiose sensibility to them that makes many think that God might be the narrator on this one as opposed to Dylan himself. Whether that is your interpretation or not doesn’t really matter, and that is what makes him such a brilliant writer of (everything) love songs. All too often, tender tales are rendered vapid with cliched individualism that you have heard a thousand times before, but Dylan makes it clear that if any sentiment is worth repeating then surely it is love.
9. ‘Lay Lady Lay’
Nashville Skyline, the album that features the incredible track ‘Lay Lady Lay’ was a huge departure for Dylan. True, he had ditched the Amish-standards folk a long time ago but now it seemed he was also ditching the voice of a generation too. The singer puts on his best butter-cutting croon to bring the album to life and there is perhaps no better showing of this than on ‘Lay Lady Lay’.
Detractors may call this song out for being a little on the cheesy side. After all, what’s rock and roll about, but pledging to be a dutiful husband? But, in a catalogue of songs that preached about the absurd beauty of love and the heroic nature of war among countless other themes, it feels fitting that at least one of his songs should be on the sultry side devotion.
8. ‘The Man in Me’
After a decade of musical dominance in the 1960s, Dylan found himself retreating from the accursed spokesperson limelight that was bestowed upon him. For his 1970 album, New Morning, he intentionally stripped his songs of anything that could be interpreted as some sort of satirical metaphor, and surprisingly such constraints resulted in somewhat of a masterpiece.
‘The Man in Me’ stands out in the party of Dylan’s back catalogue as a chilled-out presence sipping on a White Russian. If the song was any more laidback, he’d have to play it lying down and he invites you along to bask in this sonic balm. It is a dreamy piece of music, ideal for bathtub escapism (just make sure there aren’t any marmots about). And finally, does it ever get better than a la-la-la-la chorus?
7. Love Minus Zero / No Limits
With Patti Smith praising it as one of the greatest love songs ever written and George Harrison requesting to cover it alongside him at the classic Concert for Bangladesh, ‘Love Minus Zero / No Limits’ has enough credit from the greats to render it a masterpiece on those grounds alone.
As far as Dylan’s love songs go, along with ‘The Man in Me’, it might be his most straightforward of the lot. But that doesn’t mean it is some middle of the road ode, quite the opposite, rarely has love been coloured with such imagery before. Not many could get away with whispering to their partner, “you’re love reminds me of a raven, y’know.”
6. ‘I Want You’ (Studio Outtake version)
There is a monumental undertone to hearing Dylan’s first immortalising of a song in acetate, and when it’s a Blonde on Blonde classic, that moment of ether coaxing alchemy is elevated to strangely spiritual heights. In subsequent years, the song has gone down as a classic, but for my money, it has never sounded as good as this first time.
This version of the song, the first take that Dylan and the band laid down, is much rockier with a sweetly sustaining organ sound. As well as providing the first take of the track we also have Dylan providing a quick rehearsal of the song. Recorded in the early hours of a March morning in 1966, a 24-year-old Bob Dylan steps up to the mic to record a purring sultry classic. “‘I Want You’,” he responds when asked to name the track, and the rest, as they say, is ancient history.
5. ‘Boot of Spanish Leather’
Dylan croons out with soaring vulnerability: “Oh, but if I had the stars from the darkest night / And the diamonds from the deepest ocean / I’d forsake them all for your sweet kiss / For that’s all I’m wishin’ to be ownin’,” And frankly, it would be fitting to leave this particular entry right there, but I shall continue if only to appease the editor.
When he’s not prying at the fabric of society and the human soul, he is busy examining his own. This particular verse delves into that old classic notion of forsaking all for the only thing that matters, but very rarely has it been done so well and so poetically. Many may have imitated it, but few have matched. He drawls it out and it always tugs on the old heartstrings, jarring in its brilliance amidst one of the most influential albums ever. If this song was a seed, it has now blossomed an Amazon.
4. ‘She Belongs to Me’
It’s a very possessive sounding title, but in truth, Dylan sings of an adoration way beyond something he could bottle up even if he intended to. Complete with one of his finest opening verses in history, his poetry is in full Byronian swing as he eulogises an artist with the sort of zest that makes it seem like Dylan himself is a lowly lad who can strum a few chords but not a lot more.
Complete with a sweet and efficient melody, he lets his prose do the talking and it barely talks but screams. This song almost stands as the opposite side of the coin to ‘Just Like A Woman’, oh and what a duo they form. Who is this woman and where can we meet her!
3. ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’
On rock’s first double album ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ gets a side to itself. It seems befitting beyond the fact that it is 11-minutes long. It is a track that needs space to breathe and room to blossom. It is also a sentiment that deserves a side as he reels away an unfurling tale of twisted and obfuscated devotion for Sara that he would later revisit on his anthem of the same name when he purrs: “Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel / Writin’ “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you.”
Dylan himself wasn’t sure whether the track was an epic masterpiece or him “just getting carried away.” Ultimately, which end of that spectrum you arrive at depends on the mood it catches you in – that is to the songs credit – it dares to be divisive and in doing so it eviscerates the banalities of a thousand other songs of a love demured in melody.
2. ‘I Threw It All Away’
Not all love songs are signed with a name and sent off to their target, sometimes you can simply assess the subject itself. In an era that found Dylan crooning with a silky voice that seemed to have scrubbed off the old “sand and glue”, he crafted a song suitably sweet to go along with it. However, it was also such an unadorned dose of unarguable profundity that it was sweet, but never saccharine, like spiritual honey.
Although the melody may be dainty the message is anything but: in an almost daringly simple way Dylan croons out “Love and only love,” in a bold entreaty of harmony. This defiant mantra emboldens the melody with a monolithic sense of spiritualism. Nick Cave said if he could have written any song it would be this and that’s a good enough calling card to earn its place on any list.
As the story goes in Bob Spitz biography, in July of 1975, Dylan was putting the finishing touches to Desire in New York when Sara came to the Columbia studios. Therein, Dylan set about serenading her with the song that declared her “the love of his life” and listed off myriad works he had written for her and the depths of his undying devotion even through the turmoil of recent times titled simply ‘Sara’.
The tale of devotions last ditched attempt to throw a life-ring into the tempestuous rapids of marital waters imbues the ode ‘Sara’ with a bottomless depth. In the end, Dylan was left remarking: “Marriage was a failure. Husband and wife was a failure, but father and mother wasn’t a failure. I wasn’t a very good husband… I don’t know what a good husband is. I figured it would last forever.” Contrary to how that may sound, the song steps over the tired idea of love coming with an expiration date and simply transfigures the final throes of an affair with a sense of circumstantial reality amid an otherwise dreamy forever after. In short, ‘it didn’t work out’ doesn’t sound like such a sad sentence after all, lamentable, yes, but what it implies is anything but.