‘It speaks straight from the heart’: Bryan Ferry, Adele and Engelbert Humperdinck on Bob Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love

When Adele covered Bob Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love on her debut album 19, her interpretation was a sparse piano ballad that exuded tortured romantic longing. “The lyrics are just amazing and summed up exactly what I’d been trying to say in my songs,” Adele said then. “It’s about regretting not being with someone, and it’s beautiful.”

The heartbreak resonated. Originally released in October 2008, Adele’s take on Make You Feel My Love ended up a Top 5 UK hit two years later. But hers is hardly the only cover of the song to have had a lasting impact. First appearing on Dylan’s Grammy-winning 1997 album Time Out of Mind – newly rereleased with previously unheard material – Make You Feel My Love has been tackled by the likes of Billy Joel, Pink, Neil Diamond, Kelly Clarkson and Boy George. In the process it has become a rare recent entry in the Great American Songbook.

How did it become a standard? For author and journalist David Cantwell, it’s a reflection of Dylan’s later-career stylistic shift. “So much classic Dylan is known for its layered irony and hurtling verses,” he says. “But his later, slow to mid-tempo ballads align more closely to the Great American Songbook’s musical and emotional values.”

Daniel Lanois, who produced Time Out of Mind, says Make You Feel My Love “arrived as a latecomer” during the album sessions, when recording had relocated to Miami, Florida. “It was a surprise – but we like surprises.” As is evident from Dylan’s recording – a dreamy take with spectral piano, sombre organ and a full-throated vocal performance – the song didn’t take much in the way of production guidance. “It was pretty much straight off the floor – live vocal – and a nice reminder that a spontaneous moment can be captured that way,” Lanois says.

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Its simplicity was what appealed to Engelbert Humperdinck, who interpreted it as a wistful duet with Willie Nelson on his 2014 album Engelbert Calling. “There are certain songs that run through the cracks of a broken heart and quietly connect,” he says. “It doesn’t need a huge arrangement or big vocals.” Having Nelson as a foil added a new dimension, says Humperdinck, underscoring the song’s malleability. “When you put Willie on it, the love in the song can also relate to his love of music and the writers who weathered many a storm.”

Bryan Ferry turned in a lush, elegant take brimming with vulnerability and reverence on his 2007 album Dylanesque. He also gravitated toward the song’s directness. “I think this is one of his best songs: simple and direct, and it speaks straight from the heart. Maybe that explains why it has such universal appeal. Everyone can relate to it.”

Don Was, who co-produced Dylan’s 1990 album Under the Red Sky, also produced a version of the song by US country star Garth Brooks for the 1998 film Hope Floats. He praised its precise imagery and relatability but also observed that Dylan’s performance creates thematic and emotional ambiguity. “Does he believe he’s going to get the girl, or doesn’t he? You suspect he doesn’t … [But] Bob did this in his vocal – he walked the line. He never gave away whether he felt defeated or optimistic. That’s the suspense of the song.”

Other musicians have taken a firmer interpretive stance. On a 2017 cover that later appeared in the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun approaches the song from a confident place, her bold vocal delivery augmented by plucked acoustic guitar and shivering strings. “The love described in this song is so patient, unconditional,” she says. “It’s the ‘I’m there for you no matter what’ kind of love.”

Adele has since softened her lovelorn interpretation of the song, dedicating it to superfan Stormzy at a 2016 show and singing it to a couple who were engaged on stage during her 2021 concert at LA’s Griffith Observatory.

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The songwriter himself also deliberately amplified its softer side. The original recording includes a pair of self-referential, boastful lines: “The winds of change are blowin’ wild and free / You ain’t seen nothing like me yet.” But Dylan changed this section substantially in live and alternate versions, preferring instead a sentiment that ties back to the earlier lyric about rain: “Put your hand in mine and come with me / I’ll see that you don’t get wet.”

To Brun, that fealty makes the song special and enduring. “The dedication and loyalty that the lyrics express is something I think everyone longs to feel in life, as the receiver and the giver.”

Perhaps that feeling explains the abundance of Make You Feel My Love covers, says Lanois. “People like romantic songs, don’t they? It’s a very deep, romantic song. It’s nice to hear Bob deliver such a sentiment.”

• Bob Dylan’s Fragments – Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996-1997): The Bootleg Series Vol 17 is out now on Columbia/Legacy

• This article was amended on 31 January 2023. An earlier version mistakenly said the ‘Winds of change’ couplet does not appear on Dylan’s original recording of the song