Cover song
Credit: Rhea Brar

The cover: successess or sonic failures?

Listening to the baffling array of randomly selected songs that Spotify recommended to me, I stumbled across a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. Originally released as a single on the 22nd February 2024, the track was recorded with John Legend and Tori Kelly as part of Jacob Collier’s recent album, Djesse Vol.4.

I was surprised by the extent to which Collier manipulated and completely changed the meaning of the original song. This is not unusual for Collier, as his other covers do a very similar thing, like his rendition of The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does is Magic’. But it was the experience of hearing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ in this new light that particularly made me think about the vast number of musical covers that have been released and whether they can be considered a success or a sonic failure.

How do we measure the success of a cover? Does a cover excel if it places the song in a new sound world while maintaining the original meaning? Is a cover that maintains all the characteristics of the original except for the voice a triumph? Covers should be judged by much more subtle artistic choices. Not one of these proposed designations would account for this. The way to address this type of music is through a tailored approach to each song. 

It was the experience of hearing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ in this new light that particularly made me think about the vast number of musical covers that have been released and whether they can be considered a success or a sonic failure.

An example I consider successful is the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of ‘Always on My Mind’. Famously, Elvis Presley produced a 1972 romantic ballad cover of the original, which was written by Wayne Carson, Johnny Christopher and Mark James, and first recorded by Brenda Lee. Having recently heard Lee’s original recording at the time of writing, I am drawn to the similarities between this version and Elvis’ cover. Lee is most famous for Rocking Around the Christmas Tree’, and her recording of Always on My Mind’ shares the same distinctive vocal quality, colouring, and grain. 

Elvis’ rendition is very similar, particularly in regard to style and sound world (an aesthetic or image, created by the characteristics of a particular song, style, or artist) The audible context remains constant, with the rhythmic movement of the guitar in Lee’s being passed to the piano in Elvis’ version. There are however some minor differences in terms of the arrangement and handling of instruments (despite both renditions containing strings).

In contrast, the Pet Shop Boys’ synth-pop cover of ‘Always on My Mind’ differs significantly. The atmosphere and genre of the song is altered: a slow ballad becomes an upbeat tune that changes the mood of the lyrics. The arrangement is reworked to feature different instruments and textures, and is heavily percussion-dominated. The Pet Shop Boys create a disco feel throughout, but maintain much of the original harmonic backing vocals, though they are placed further back within the mix and changed to instrumentals. 

This cover also makes use of synthesised and electronically generated sounds – textures which emphasise the contrast between these three versions. In addition, they introduced moments of harmonic variation within the song, expanding certain cadences to emphasise specific lyrics. The Pet Shop Boys’ version was voted the all time best cover version by a 2014 BBC poll and is certainly my favourite. The music drives forward, with changing textures and production techniques that create variation while remaining faithful to the original. 

There is almost a painful intimacy about this song: Buckley expresses his body and soul throughout, emphasised by the audible breath that opens the track.

Jeff Buckley’s successful cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ takes an already intimate song, and somehow makes it even more so. I find Buckley’s cover so restrained through the very simple setting of mere voice and the plucking of electric guitar strings. There is almost a painful intimacy about this song: Buckley expresses his body and soul throughout, emphasised by the audible breath that opens the track. It is raw and emotive, navigating different sonic regions within the introduction, before settling into the key of C major. The addition of certain subtle dissonances and the darker feel to the introduction helps to create a different atmosphere to Cohen’s original. 

Buckley’s voice feels like an embodied process – we can hear the vocal production: the audible breaths, moments where Buckley almost runs out of breath, and where graininess is created through vocal manipulation. His voice is subtle and stunning in its control: throughout the song it feels like Buckley is almost breathing down your neck, whispering in your ear, giving it a sense of presence. He emphasises the sensuality that is inherent within Cohen’s lyrics, and helps create the comparison between hallelujah and an orgasm that underlies the meaning of Cohen’s song. 

Buckley resists doing what so many other covers of this song have done: taking a simple, personal song and making it complex and expressive with the addition of large gospel choirs and excessive backing singers. These change what makes the original brilliant – the intimacy. More broadly speaking, much is lost through making the simple overly complex and this is precisely why so many covers fail, and why Buckley’s succeeds. 

Buckley’s voice feels like an embodied process – we can hear the vocal production: the audible breaths, moments where Buckley almost runs out of breath, and where graininess is created through vocal manipulation.

The Endless Coloured Ways: The Songs of Nick Drake, released in July 2023, is an example of where I believe sonic failures are present. This album is a compilation of covers from many artists including Fontaines D.C., Let’s Eat Grandma, and AURORA. None of the songs on the album captured the undeniable magic of Nick Drake’s songs, disappointing and almost ruining the originals for me. Drake’s voice is stunning – subtle, breathy, distinctive, and perfectly controlled throughout the range and variety in colouring.

It is when the inferiority of the different voices are combined with the other artistic decisions of these covers that the sonic failures become foregrounded. Take AURORA’s rendition of ‘Pink Moon‘, which removes Drake’s strumming guitar accompaniment, and replaces it with a synthesised, almost spectral sounding sustained accompaniment. The beautiful descending piano countermelody in the chorus is shifted to a synth that matches the spectral vibe, while AURORA’s voice sits above this texture. 

The entire meaning of Drake’s original feels lost and this new version becomes underwhelming. Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’ is brilliant through its simplicity – the lyrics shine through the accompaniment which keeps the song moving. In AURORA’s version, Drake’s lyrics become hidden by a computer-generated wash of sound which attracts all of the attention: the sonic masks and detracts from poetic meaning. This results in a kind of conflict between them as to which takes precedence, contrasting the original in which every element blends perfectly.

Meanwhile, in Fontaines D.C.’s cover of ‘Cello song’, the gorgeous cello line of the original is distorted, and accompanied by a heavy rock beat introduction which is answered by an electric guitar. When the voice eventually enters this massively different texture, it sounds bland and uninspiring. The lyrics are pushed to the periphery. The arrangement and the rock sound world do not blend together or function in relation to the simplicity of Nick Drake’s magical lyrics:

“So forget this cruel world, Where I belong, I’ll  just sit and wait, And sing my song, And if one day you should see me in the crowd, Lend a hand and lift me, To your place in the cloud”

In all these covers, the meaning is lost, the atmosphere is destroyed, the subtleness is gone. Audible conflict is created between the different components of each of these resulting in sonic failure.

The modern music industry is contingent upon the critical and the financial reception of songs and albums. Although there were many reviewers who particularly engaged with this collection of covers, this album did also receive many mixed reviews. In Under the Radar, Ian Rushbury described the album as a collection of “mixed bags” that were “occasionally frustrating”. Gavin McNamara, writing for Tradfolk, is also critical of ‘The Endless Coloured Ways’. They quite correctly conclude their article stating: “there’s still no-one quite as special as Nick Drake.”

Often described by fans as the ‘new Mozart’, Jacob Collier’s covers follow a particular formula: change the style and add some very distinctive Jacob Collier harmonies. These are essentially jazz harmonies full of extension and suspension chords, and moments where harmonies are bitonal and do not resolve in the way one might expect. Personally, I do not think that Collier’s harmonies work and perhaps there is a reason why other artists don’t use these harmonies within their songs. 

Despite this, it is a pleasure to finally hear some harmonic variation in a genre of music that is overly reliant on the four chords of pop: I, IV, V, and VI. Collier’s harmonic language is not original however, it does what so many jazz artists have done before just in a different context. He is not a revolutionist, nor is he the next musical messiah. Anyway, Collier’s cover of ‘Every Little Thing She Does is Magic’ is an interesting example of one that does too much. I believe that Collier changes the original to such an extent that, while the Police track can still be heard, much is lost and turned into a fundamentally tacky product of a so-called musical genius. 

I first came across Collier’s cover of The Police when my friend was listening to it. Previously a massive fan of the cover, they now prefer the original to Collier’s take. I personally do not like Collier’s voice and his vocal quality: it lacks vocal colour, intricacy, depth, or variety. When compared to Sting’s voice (the lead singer of The Police), Collier’s voice feels even more bland. Collier removes the rising whole tone base line ostinato that is introduced from the get-go and features throughout the original, and replaces it with a massively contrasting idea. This drops out when Collier’s voice enters, but returns in the chorus with the addition of a very rhythmically complex pattern. 

Collier deploys many textural changes, but handles the arrangement in an unconvincing manner. The brass instruments are used sparingly, and I do not feel they add anything to the already over complicated textures. Collier expands certain sections and adds melodic variation and decoration to the original. He ends with a very thinned texture, and sustained piano jazz chords, reminiscent of his personal style. These chords feel like outsiders, and do not match the overarching harmonic language of the rest of the song; which for Collier’s music, is particularly traditional. 

Collier changes the original to such an extent that, while the Police track can still be heard, much is lost and turned into a fundamentally tacky product of a so-called musical genius. 

In The Guardian, Neil Spencer writes about the songs on Djesse Vol. 1 (including ‘Every Little Thing She Does is Magic’): “Its songs are jerked around by fussy arrangements and abrupt rhythm shifts. Collier’s voice is agile and tuneful but uncommanding – he prefers to hide in harmony vocals – while an enjoyably snazzy cover of the Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ underlines that he is yet to deliver a killer tune of his own. So far, Collier’s undoubted magic is only intermittent.”

For me, the Police’s original handles texture much more subtly and the build-ups to the chorus also feel increasingly successful. The Police’s song is innovative, fun, and engaging. It does less and achieves more. Collier’s, on the other hand, is a mess of different complex ideas all fused into a product that does not hold itself together. 

Covers are a big part of the music industry and their success or failure is dependent on how much we respond to them in relation to the original song. They can either remain faithful to it, or they can change it. Either way, there is a very fine balance to be struck between inevitable sonic failure and success. Fundamentally, when you listen to a cover, you often find yourself not getting lost in a new voice of a pre-existing song, but craving for the original.