The Comfort of Cover Songs
How playing other people’s songs can get you through tough times
What’s your favorite cover song? You know, a remake? Sometimes they are really bad, but maybe so bad that they’re good? Think: William Shatner singing “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” or Pat Boone singing “Enter Sandman.” And sometimes, when they are really good, they transcend the original.
The first great cover I remember is “I Love Rock and Roll,” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. I loved that song and had no idea it was originally recorded by The Arrows in 1975. Her overdriven guitars brought out the raw desire of the lyrics and she flipped the gender role of the protagonist to boot. That’s what a good cover does — beyond respecting the original, it reinterprets and reconnects, bringing out something new that wasn’t obvious before.
As an artist it’s a little daunting to play someone else’s song unless you have a deep connection to it. It’s not like karaoke, where you’re just having a good time singing along. It’s more like an interpretive dance, trying to reveal something new about the composer’s truth, highlighting the song’s universality and depth, or even turning it on its head. Over the years I’ve actually avoided playing cover songs except for the occasional good-natured Battle of the Cover Bands at my day job.
However, this year I recorded and released a cover song — “Unmade” by Thom Yorke. It may seem like an odd choice since it’s from Suspiria, a soundtrack for a horror film that is also happens to be a remake. “Unmade” is unusually sentimental for Mr. Yorke, and honestly for me too. Here is the man who sang, “Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon,” now beckoning to “Come under my wings, little bird.” Its placement in the film is equally surprising. It serves as the backing track for the climax of the story when the new mother witch takes control of her coven. It’s a maximum bloodshed scene, somewhat dampened by the song, making the moment as melancholy as it is gory. Somehow it’s neither good nor bad, just an amoral, tragic thing that Mother Suspiriorum must do, like an animal eating its young.
The song has taken up a similar liminal space in my mind. It’s not a pity song. In fact, it’s a song of comfort. But it’s a cool comfort that telegraphs “everything is wrong, and we’re still here.” Nothing more. No sun is going to come up tomorrow promise. It still might be the end.
This perspective has resonated with me over the last few years and the reason I covered “Unmade”. It’s easy to trick myself into believing that there is an end to troubles in sight. But the harsh reality is often there is not. We should never give up hope of a better future, but we also shouldn’t resign ourselves to hopelessness in the present. Comfort and joy can be pursued now, because it may only be available now. In my experience, the lyrics, “under my wing,” are in my home. And honestly sometimes home can be tough too, but it’s still home.
When I was writing War Is On Its Way I just had a feeling that “Unmade” fit among my own songs. I had already recorded it prior to starting the project, a track that came about because I wanted to learn how to mic drums in my house and play with my son, a talented musician in his own right. We reinterpreted Yorke’s piano arrangement for guitar, bass and drums which resulted in amplifying the dramatic arc of the song, causing each cycle of its circular arrangement to increase in intensity as it progressed.
It’s not lost on me that Thom Yorke did the same with his son, Noah, when recording the soundtrack for Suspiria. Noah plays drums on several tracks of the record. I can only speculate about what they were feeling as they worked together, but certainly they were processing grief after the death of Yorke’s wife and mother of his children, Rachel Owen. Their experience reminded me of another father/son recording duo, Jeff and Spencer Tweedy.
In 2014, Susan Tweedy, Jeff’s wife and Spencer’s mother, was diagnosed with lymphoma. The two worked on a project (later named Sukierae) together during her chemo treatments to process their grief and anxiety. Jeff later told the Chicago Tribune: “Contrary to the notion of the ‘tortured artist,’ one of the great virtues of being an artist is you have consolation. The family was involved in something together, and as Susie’s health transpired, it (making the album) gave us a welcome sense of meaning, a sense that things were moving forward and there was something to look forward to besides more biopsies and scans. It just became comforting to everyone.”
I can’t help but feel a kindred understanding of these shared moments through this music. It’s a connection, deeper than the song itself. What were we processing? There was no specific event we could point toward. But there was a threatening cloud on the horizon — a storm brewing that eventually broke. It was the cloudburst that started War Is On Its Way.
In truth, what makes a good cover song is what makes any good song. Psychologists say our brains mimic the emotions in the music and lyrics and this behavior gives us a reprieve from our own circumstances. When one artist is playing the song of another that emotional mimicry goes even deeper as our hands follow the same patterns of the song’s composer. Layer similar circumstances on top of this and it’s easy to see how playing someone else’s song can be so… personal.
Was “I Love Rock and Roll” personal? You bet! Joan Jett helped me express a preteen energy I had no words for and I banged out those chords on an acoustic guitar with passion. Covering Thom Yorke helped me do the same as an adult in an appropriately (adjusts neck tie) more mature way. In this trying time there is a lot of emotion and uncertainty. We’ve collectively accumulated pain, anger, cynicism, grief and despair. There’s no guarantee anything will change, as much as we hope it will. And so what do we have? We have each other. We have those close to us—friends and family. We also have the artists that have opened up themselves to us over the years, and in doing so, helped us open up ourselves too.
I’ve made a playlist of some of my favorite covers. Hope you find something new and comforting here. It begins with a melancholy mood before it kicks into gear with a cover of “The Lovecats,” originally by The Cure, but played here by members of Supergrass calling themselves The Hotrats. After about 10 tracks it slows down again with J.Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. singing a tortured version of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You.” Things pick up again with a first-hand retelling of the Beatles “Eleanor Rigby” sang by Aretha Franklin. We close with Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah,” still the best version of Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece in my opinion.