Arts, Column

Pender: A Closer Look at Songs And Their Covers

What makes an artist cover a song? Do they love the original so much that they want to add to the song’s legacy? Or do they think the original artist got something wrong?

Across genres and generations, bands and singers have taken established songs and created their own versions. A cover is sometimes recorded within a few days of the original song, or sometimes they can come many years later. 

The real question about covers is whether they’re just as good as—or even better—than the original. Both original songs and covers can be artistically valuable and great to listen to in their own ways, but people are still likely to have very strong opinions about which version of a song is better. I myself am no different: I think the best covers are those that convey the underlying emotions of the lyrics through their performance.

“Lovesong” by Adele, released in 2011, is a cover that shows improvement over the original, released by The Cure in 1989. Adele’s slow, yearning ballad became one of my favorite songs. Her powerful voice showcases her raw emotion on the chorus in particular.

“However far away, I will always love you / However long I stay, I will always love you / Whatever words I say, I will always love you / I will always love you,” Adele sings. 

Adele’s voice has a jazz edge to it, and her sensual side is incredibly apparent on this song. Her vocal choices bring out the emotion of the lyrics, which are poetic and rich with feeling. 

Likewise, the instrumentation emphasizes the all-encompassing love present in the lyrics. The interlude between the end of the chorus and bridge sets up Adele’s booming vocal return while allowing the percussion and the guitar to take center stage. 

“Whenever I’m alone with you / You make me feel like I am free again,” Adele sings.

The original version by The Cure features the same lyrics in almost the exact same pattern with similar instrumentation. The speeds of the songs are different, though. The driving beat in The Cure’s version pushes the song forward, unlike the contemplative pace of Adele’s version. 

That’s not to say The Cure’s version is bad, but it feels uniquely different. It has a classic new wave sound, and the juxtaposition of the thoughtful lyrics with the more popular-focused tempo is characteristic of many of the band’s songs. 

The Cure’s “Lovesong” makes you want to get up and dance, and Adele’s makes you want to sit down and cry over the person you love. Both versions are fantastic, but I think Adele’s version brings to life the intense emotional meaning of the lyrics in a more direct way than the original. The song is very vulnerable and emotional, making Adele the perfect person to showcase these details to their fullest potential.

An example of a cover coming decades after the original song can be found in Lana Del Rey’s “Blue Velvet,” which she released in 2012. Bobby Vinton’s original came out in 1963, nearly 50 years earlier. 

Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” stands solidly in the musical tradition of the ’60s. A chorus backs him up, offering “Woah-woah-woahs” and “Ahhhs” to emphasize Vinton’s words and fill up musical space. 

Vinton’s voice is smooth, and his version of the song is incredibly light and easy to listen to. The lyrics are meant to be sad since they point to a love lost and only remembered by the blue velvet which his lover wore. The swinging beat and the chorus, as well as the twinkle of a xylophone at the end, don’t do the lyrics justice. The effect of the lyrics and music together feel like a nice dream which Vinton woke up from, not a tragic love story. 

Del Rey’s version of “Blue Velvet,” contrastingly, does not let you listen to it without truly contemplating its meaning. Sweeping violins open the piece, interrupted only by the rich and sonorous tones of Del Rey’s voice. A steady percussive beat and violins replace the chorus’s interjections. The twinkling xylophone still remains, albeit much less prominently than in Vinton’s version.

Del Rey’s instrumentation choices and the inherently luxurious tone of her voice bring new life to the emotion present in the lyrics, particularly on the bridge, which finally gives the speaker’s emotional tumult the chance to breathe. Del Rey’s voice breaks off slightly on the words “gone” and “of,” bearing the weight of the heavy words. All that is left of this love is a warm memory, and Del Rey’s yearning vocals emphasize this notion.

“But when she left, gone was the glow of / Blue velvet / But in my heart there’ll always be / Precious and warm a memory,” Del Rey sings. 

One well-known example of a popular cover version is “Atlantic City” by The Band, released in 1993. Bruce Springsteen’s original version was released in 1982 on his album Nebraska, which featured minimal audio editing and a very isolated, folksy tone.

The Band’s version of the song became quite popular—it features an almost shanty-like feel, and begins with one voice and a banjo. In the chorus, multiple voices join in, giving the listener a sense of a community bonding over a shared sense of trauma. Following the first chorus comes an interlude that sounds like an Irish jig. The rest of the song features more prominent instrumentation to support a pub song theme, rather than the grieving undertones it should have.

Springsteen’s version is much more raw than The Band’s, supported by no backing vocals besides Springsteen’s own voice haunting himself. His shouts pierce the verses like the shadows of old lives or the “debts that no honest man can pay.” The desperation of the character in the story is clearly evident in this version, as he’s planning on going to Atlantic City to join the mob.

“Well, I’m tired of gettin’ caught out on the losin’ end / But I talked to a man last night / Gonna do a little favor for him,” Springsteen sings. 

The couple in the story is not only desperate, but must turn to organized crime to make ends meet. The absence of other voices, and the frightening, ghost-like yells of Springsteen on the track, make his version of “Atlantic City” the one which sticks with me most. The Band’s version is fun to listen to, but the reality of these words do not haunt me the same way Springsteen’s do. The premise of the song is a terrifying one, and the style of The Band’s version fails to demonstrate the desperation that Springsteen evokes so well.

Remakes are a common occurrence in the music industry, and which version is better usually comes down to personal preference. When a song has really poignant or evocative lyrics, however, I think versions that pay homage to the emotions present in those lyrics are superior. 

After all, isn’t the point of music to make listeners feel something?

December 3, 2023