There are numerous reasons to love October. By now, you’ve been shoveling pumpkin-everything in your mouth for a good month. The weather is settling into a comfortable coolness that makes going out less unbearable. If you live in the right place, the leaves are changing color. Sorry, Christmas, but this is really the most wonderful time of the year. All of this is peripheral, though: October is many things, but no matter where you’re from, or how old you get, it is above all else about Halloween.
Halloween, as we all know, is about candy, but short of all weighing in on Bow Wow Wow, there are not a whole lot of directions to take that theme on a site like this. Thankfully, Halloween is also about the costuming. Let’s be honest, there’s always something fun about being someone we’re not, no matter how far we are from carting pillowcases door to door. In the realm of music, of course, this is best represented by the cover song. It’s a chance for an artist to wear his influences on his sleeve, or to pay tribute to her favorite song. It is an avenue to spin a track on its head stylistically, or to reinterpret it from another emotional perspective. All musicians grew up playing other people’s songs, and loving other bands’ music. Getting to finally express the music of our heroes is an incredibly powerful feeling, and it’s one I’d venture to say all artists want to do. Even the Beatles, one of the most influential (and most covered) bands of the modern era, covered songs like “Twist and Shout” and “You Really Got a Hold on Me” early in their career. With all this in mind, we at the Soundtrack decided to celebrate this musical costuming over the weekends of October, much as you yourself might be celebrating your own costuming for that Halloween party at the end of the month.
This being said, I’m not personally a big fan of covers on the whole. Don’t get me wrong, there are many I do love, but just as dressing in costume gets annoying and childish when someone is doing it all the time, overdoing the cover thing feels equally desperate and fake. I tend to have rules for a professionally released cover. One of my biggest pet peeves is a cover that comes out too soon after an original. It’s little more than piggybacking off something which is already successful, and the world simply does not need three different renditions of “Blurred Lines” on the radio. Overall, though, it’s about the lack of creativity. When Pop Princess #49 covers Random 80s Song #306, it’s cold and meaningless. When Gary Jules pulls out “Mad World,” and wrings out every drop of sadness and tension that the Tears For Fears original eschews for New-Wave bounce, something special is created. There is a new statement being made. Again, not every great cover pulls off this total new statement, but they do all feature artists who inhabit the song comfortably. There is always a reason the artist pulled the song out from obscurity, or felt a need to recreate it, that goes deeper than “Whooooooo-hoo! Free money!” This is why most covers are absolutely terrible, and rely on two things: an abiding love for the artist doing the covering, or a blind love of the song itself which doesn’t prejudge over who is performing it. The best covers inspire real discussion about their merits and how they interpret the former track. It’s not just the musical equivalent of a child putting on their parent’s clothes.
The difficulty is, however, in a post-”Mad-World” world, even this depth of understanding and depth of respect for songs becomes a formula. Countless “indie” artists have copied the formula, taking songs that feel “out of date” and just slooooowing ‘em down to a snail crawl. It’s become the musical equivalent of an Instagram filter: something that approximates art for those who can’t frame it themselves. The cover itself is already a vehicle for a performer without strong creativity to foist themselves on a public that would be spared if they were forced to write their own songs. Adding to the self-promotional formula doesn’t suddenly turn this process into introspective art.
The reason this works for Jules is easiest to single out by putting his work up against another piece that treads similar territory. Like Jules, The Last Town Chorus’ cover of David Bowie’s “Modern Love” slows a super danceable song down to a crawl. Both songs come from the early 80s. Both covers are performed with appropriately fragile voices and more stripped down arrangements. It is, again, easy to find the patterns. Both songs also deal with some pretty existentially concerning topics. “Mad World” is far clearer in its message of feeling alienated, but “Modern Love” has its own set of problems. It’s a song that touches on conflicts of love and faith, and the “I try, I try” refrain becomes far more haunting in this context. Bowie states simply that he’s “never gonna fall for modern love,” that it “walks beside me” and then “walks on by.” He discusses how getting to church on time terrifies him, and later asserts that he has no religion. He’s standing in the rain, but holding on, never waving goodbye. There’s some desperation and longing about the song that is teased out through the rearrangement. The idea of trying to get by suits the more positive backing track of the original, chock full of horns as it is, as do throwaway lines such as trusting God and man. There is every reason to believe there is some sort of positivity in Bowie’s struggle, but the cover’s strength, besides its lush vocal and musical soundscapes (I’m a sucker for a lap-steel), is that it suggests there is an equally valid alternative reading, or else strengthens the sorrow of the intended reading.
Being able to feel a song on an honest level, whether on the level the artist intended or one the artist would never expect, is the reason I love some covers more than others, and hate many for not even attempting. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’ll say this much: recently I heard Mad World re-recorded with a more pronounced backbeat (read: any backbeat), almost as if it were meant to be danced to. The cover was re-covered to incorporate the bits that even Tears For Fears have admitted were not as good as the reinterpretation. That is perhaps the definition of a non-nuanced, throwaway cover. I’d like to think that this take on Bowie simply strengthens the idea that there is a right way to approach these musical tributes, and it should start with understanding and respecting the original.
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