A few different times I’ve included a song with a post if it happened to be on topic, but for this post I want to share a few songs that I’ve been listening to a lot recently. All of them happen to be covers.
Cover songs are interesting when done well. They transform a song to a new context, give it a new shape and sound, and sometimes resuscitate life into it. But what I find most interesting is that no matter how transformed a song is by a cover version, there is still some core identity that remains. There’s a kernel of the song that the listener can recognize even when it changes clothes, speeds up, slows down, or completely metamorphosizes.
I’m thinking about this in part because my high school class’s 20th reunion is next month, and I’m not able to get back for it. I haven’t kept up with many of my classmates, and some I haven’t seen since graduation. I feel like I’ve changed a lot in the intervening years, but that there is something still distinctly me that is the same. I’m different versions of the same song.
The first cover is Brian Eno’s version of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free.” Here’s what Eno had to say about the song: “That particular song always resonated with me but it took about 25 years before I thought about the lyrics. “I’m set free, to find a new illusion”. Wow. That’s saying we don’t go from an illusion to reality (the western idea of “Finding The Truth”) but rather we go from one workable solution to another more workable solution.”
I like to think of it in slightly different terms, something more like we go from one story to another story. We tell ourselves the story of our lives, with ourselves as the main characters. Sometimes it’s one long continuous narrative. But sometimes we revise and start a new story. We’re set free to find a new illusion.
The next song is Sturgill Simpson’s cover of “The Promise” by When In Rome. Mostly this is an excuse to share something from Simpson’s album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music which I recently discovered and have been listening to a bunch. When I heard this song I didn’t immediately know that it was a cover, but something about it sounded familiar. It felt like I should know it, though when I looked up the original, I couldn’t say for certain that I had known it (though I had definitely heard it before during the ending of Napoleon Dynamite). It’s a classic example of a one hit wonder.
Simpson turns what was originally a new wave synthpop driving melody into a plaintive cry. A gentle piano solo in the original becomes a soulful guitar in the cover. It’s a tremendous transformation all around. Though they are worlds apart, I really like both versions. And I like the song because I relate to the confession in the chorus of the speaker’s inability to communicate fully and completely what he desires: “I’m sorry, but I’m just thinking of the right words to say / I know they don’t sound the way I planned them to be.” Then, despite the shortcomings of the speaker, he overpromises that he will overcome everything to get his lover to fall for him. The grandiose feelings are over the top, but that’s what love can feel like sometimes.
The last cover is divisive. Max Richter took it upon himself to “recompose” one of the most famous pieces in classical music: Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. He thought it had become too familiar, almost like elevator music. So he wanted to “reclaim the piece, to fall in love with it again.”
In this selection from “Spring,” Richter takes the bird like sounds of the violin from Vivaldi and loops them while providing a bass line progression that is emotionally evocative. I found many reviews that hated this combination, especially the latter part. One described it as “tak[ing] a bit of the original—the solo violin birdsong in the first movement of “Spring” for example—and repeat[ing] it mindlessly over a pop-ish chord progression”; another echoed the sentiment: “The string line underpinning the first section added an unfortunate dollop of schmaltz.” Well, I like it. Maybe because it is a pop chord progression and schmaltzy. I found the effect extremely entrancing and moving.
And here are the originals if you want to compare.
The Velvet Underground “I’m Set Free”
When In Rome “The Promise”
“Spring” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (The selection I picked featuring Anne Sophie Mutter doesn’t let me embed the video, so you’ll have to click on the link to hear/watch it.)