When I was young, I had a problem with interpretive music; for my idealistic self it suggested a lack of creativity, a lack of artistic will, or something like that. (I definitely had a bit of an obsession with the idea of The Artist as a True Individual or some shit.) Over the years my position has markedly changed, but I do know why I felt that way: too many covers in pop rock are ‘straight-up’, i.e. the songs are clearly recognizable as as the originals and the artist has re-used the original arrangement, tempo, production etc. One of the things that first attracted me to jazz was how jazz artists were expected to be different every time out. (This is also a little frustrating in the “classical” music world where most of the industry is focused on replicating older performances of works or trying to recreate the “original intentions” of a particular composer.)
But I have come to believe that covers can be truly great. It doesn’t matter whether or not the performer wrote the song really, it’s what they do with it. Yes, most covers blow donkey balls, but there are great ones. And it follows that there can be great cover albums. (One critic called this “classy karaoke”, which suggests that cover albums are always inferior to music that is original. I beg to differ: I would rather listen to a great cover album than most 2013 Top 40 pop, for example.)
I’m not sure I would put this record in the very top tier of cover albums, as I
- haven’t heard enough of them and
- think Fantomas’ The Director’s Cut is on another planet from most of the ones I have heard.
But this is still incredible stuff. I suspect the reason it has been rated so poorly is because people don’t like Gabriel’s interpretations; because these interpretations are too different. But, folks, that’s why it’s good.
His cover of “Heroes” is absolutely incredible – a complete rethinking of the song – and unfortunately it sets up the rest of the album as a bit of disappointment after that strong start. But I would rank his covers of “Listening Wind” and “Street Spirit” as among the best covers I’ve heard. (His version of “Heroes” would also be on that list.) The rest of the album is still solid. For example, I really don’t like Paul Simon – to clarify I find him okay but very, very overrated – but I really like Gabriel’s version of “The Boy in the Bubble.” Anyone who can make me like Paul Simon is doing something right.
As an aside, these takes are even more radical than the orchestral versions of his own songs he would release a year later. And despite the consensus that New Blood is a better record, I prefer this one. I’d rather have my preconceptions challenged.
- “”Heroes”” by David Bowie, Brian Eno; originally performed by David Bowie; 4:10
- “The Boy in the Bubble” by Paul Simon, Forere Motloheloa; originally performed by Paul Simon; 4:28
- “Mirrorball” by Guy Garvey, Craig Potter, Mark Potter, Pete Turner, Richard Jupp; originally performed by Elbow; 4:48
- “Flume” by Justin Vernon; originally performed by Bon Iver; 3:01
- “Listening Wind” by David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth; originally performed by Talking Heads; 4:23
- “The Power of the Heart” by Lou Reed; originally performed by Lou Reed; 5:52
- “My Body Is a Cage” by Win Butler, Régine Chassagne, Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury, Will Butler, Jeremy Gara, Sarah Neufeld; originally performed by Arcade Fire; 6:13
- “The Book of Love” by Stephin Merritt; originally performed by The Magnetic Fields; 3:53
- “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” by Randy Newman; originally performed by Randy Newman; 2:34
- “Après moi” by Regina Spektor; originally performed by Regina Spektor; 5:13
- “Philadelphia” by Neil Young; originally performed by Neil Young; 3:46
- “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” by Thom Yorke, Ed O’Brien, Colin Greenwood, Jonny Greenwood, Phil Selway; originally performed by Radiohead; 5:06