Man, I love an ugly voice—a gravelly, smoky, world-weary voice. I love a voice soaked in booze and pain and suffering. I love a voice that emanates upward from a cavern, the voice of a philosopher, a hermit, the voice of the blues, the voice of a poet-troglodyte.
On pop radio, at the gym, in the grocery store and at dance clubs we are mostly served the smooth and velvety voices of computerization, touched up with overproduction and layered with auto tune—the audio equivalent of Photoshop. The Katy Perrys, the Taylor Swifts, or a decade previous the Brits and X-tinas. You know the type of pretty voice I mean; it usually accompanies a pretty face.
Ugly voices, on the contrary, are human voices (and the faces aren’t always so fetching either). They are voices that express.
I like a pretty voice, a powerful voice, a soulful voice, but often I find myself returning to the gnarly voices.
Of course when we think of ugly voices one particular icon comes to mind: Bob Dylan. Yes, Dylan’s voice is ugly, perhaps one of if not the ugliest of ugly voices to achieve such prominence. Yet, we listen to Dylan not for the lyrics, not only for the craftsmanship and musicality, but for the croaky one-and-only voice. Bob Dylan’s voice is his voice and those who love it love it not only despite the fact that it is not choirboy perfect but because it’s not.
But Bob Dylan is merely the gateway drug for the ugly voice connoisseur. The full-fledged ugly voice junkie steeps in the gravel road rasp of Tom Waits, the quack of a Lucinda Williams tune, the baritone drone of Greg Brown, Bill Callahan, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave, the cracked and creased Marianne Faithful snarl, and those of a thousand half-forgotten blues musicians from Blind Lemon Jefferson to RL Burnside.
Ugly voices usually begin ugly and become even uglier over the years. In the case of Dylan and Cohen and Waits their 1960s voices sound downright honey-dewed and mellifluous compared to their current croaks and baritone grumbles and throaty goat barks. Cohen’s recent songs—“Almost Like the Blues,” for instance (from 2014)—sound as if it emanates upward from some kind of vaporous cauldron. Yet, Cohen’s voice becomes its own character, personifying the sentiment of the fatigued and metaphysical. Likewise, Bill Callahan’s sonic inventorying (under his own name or under the auspices of Smog) offers a distinctive soundscape like no other. Using heavy repetition and a litany of nature images often coupled with heavy irony, Callahan hands the reader a song like “Bathysphere” replete with strings and oh-oh-oh female background singers. “I wanted to live in a bathysphere/between coral/silent eel/silver swordfish/I can’t really feel or dream down here.” Callahan is the heir apparent to Leonard Cohen. He too has a voice fingerprint.
Several summers back on a swampy Washington, D.C. evening I had the pleasure of catching a Lucinda Williams show outdoors at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. The opening act, Amos Lee, has a beautiful Otis Redding voice, but not much else. When Lucinda Williams began her impassioned bluesy duck warble, several Amos Lee fans packed up their bags. Yet, this is precisely when the real music began. Not only is Lucinda a country/blues master but her songs emanate not from an office spreadsheet but from the heart—from her own scruffy, untidy existence. Lucinda is the queen of the ugly voice, as her legions of fans already know.
In one of the Facebook music groups where I wile away my hours the group coordinator, an old friend, loves to praise ugly voices even more than I do. I’m pretty sure she might even add Patti Smith and Mick Jagger and certainly Keeef Richards to the stew. Some ugly voices we just become accustomed to and they no longer seem ugly—just unique. Sting has an ugly voice. Kurt Cobain had one, too.
I could go on and on. The point is this: rooted in the blues, the ugly voice is compelling, multi-dimensional, personal (even if not for everyone). But for those of us who tap into the ugly voice, we can feel it. That ugly voice has a life of its own. Of course a beautiful or rich or seductive voice can be enthralling and simply pleasant to listen to, also (Thom Yorke, Aretha, Roy Orbison for instance). However, here’s to the warty voice, the voice that doesn’t sound quite so…seamless. In other words, here’s to how music is supposed to sound, sung on the back porch, front porch, in a hole-in-the wall, on a street corner, as we clap and sing along in our own ugly voices.