Artist: The Twilight Singers
Album: She Loves You
Released: August 24,2004
Label: One Little Indian
A cover song, and especially an entire album of cover songs, can serve a variety of purposes. Sometimes a band just really likes a song enough to play it alongside their own songs and maybe throw it on an album. Sometimes it’s a way for a band to honor their influences, or to share with their fans the music that shaped their own sound. Usually they aren’t too hard to figure out, on a conceptual basis. John Lennon’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” was a pretty straight up covers album of the kind of 50’s and 60’s rock music from the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard that influenced him so directly. David Bowie’s “Pin Ups” was mostly a collection of 60’s era music from The Who, Pink Floyd and The Kinks that he was exposed to in London and liked. Todd Rundgren’s “Faithful” was mostly about showing off his technical virtuosity in creating almost perfect studio replicas of complex songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Good Vibrations”. Some (perhaps many) cover songs are forgettable, while some are so unique, like the Breeders’ cover of “Happiness if a Warm Gun”, that a band is able to make it seem like their own song. What usually separates the forgettable from the memorable are whether a band can find a way to bring a new perspective or voice to a song. To do this with one cover is usually an accomplishment, but to create an entire covers album that is memorable because of the new perspective it brings is something else entirely.
And so it is with She Loves You, the third album released by Greg Dulli’s band The Twilight Singers. Even a quick glance at the track listing gives the listener a hint that they are in for something different – it’s not often that one finds Björk and John Coltrane on the same album, and the range of genres covered is impressive – although this is clearly an album that’s less about replicating the originals and more about reinterpreting them in that distinctive Twilight Singers sound. Almost everything about this album hints that it’s not a traditional covers album, and that Dulli has more purpose in presenting these songs than just sharing his interpretations of a random assortment of songs. It seems that Dulli really wants the listener to think about each of these songs – individually, how they compare and contrast with the original, and collectively, what larger themes they might suggest.
Before even listening, one is left to contemplate the title of this collection, She Loves You. It suggests one might expect to hear a cover of the Beatles song of the same name, but it’s nowhere to be found here. Interestingly enough, on the next Twilight Singers album, 2006’s Powder Burns, Dulli quotes the famous “she loves you yeah, yeah, yeah” lyric in the song “Forty Dollars”. The Beatles references strewn throughout this song perhaps give a hint about Dulli’s approach to other’s songs. In the case of “Forty Dollars”, most of the Beatles references seem to subvert the original meaning or give it a darker, more seductive edge – “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Beatles For Sale” get transmuted into a line about buying love for forty dollars and having love for sale. And “love is all you need, and all you need is love” turns from an upbeat lyric about universal love to something more sinister, sung with a sneer, leading into “she loves you yeah, yeah, yeah”, again with a tone very far removed from the original. Dulli was able to take these lyrics and give them a completely new meaning, almost entirely by some shifts in tone and key and in his vocal performance. In a way, this is what he does with many of the songs on She Loves You.
But still, why use “She Loves You” as the title but not actually include it among the covers? If this were a simpler collection, and a simpler band doing the covering, it would be easy to think it was a reference to a thematic thread of love songs, or at least songs relating to the subject. And certainly some songs, like “Hyperballad” and “Real Love” and “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair” fit the bill. But this is an album that also includes “Too Tough to Die”, “Strange Fruit”, “Hard Time Killing Floor” and “Summertime”, making it harder to describe this as a connecting theme for the entire album. One possibility can be found in a closer look at the original Beatles song – even though it has some of the simplest lyrics imaginable, one unusual and notable thing about it is that it is, in fact, not a traditional love song. It isn’t being sung directly to one the singer loves, but rather, is being sung to a third party, about someone else’s love for them. The narrator is serving as a conduit for someone else’s message. Looking at it that way, it actually becomes a very clever title for a covers album – by using it as a title, Dulli is acknowledging that the songs on this album are someone else’s feelings/emotions/ideas, and he’s acting as a conduit/filter between the original artist and the listener. And in doing so, he gives himself a wider amount of freedom to interpret and give his own meaning to each song.
The album opens with “Feeling of Gaze” by Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions. The original version has a sense of longing and vulnerability, comprised almost entirely of a sad cello line and Hope Sandoval’s voice. In the cover version, the cello is replaced with a more upbeat acoustic guitar strumming, and Dulli’s vocals are a marked contrast to Sandoval’s – there’s still that sense of longing, but somehow with less vulnerability and more confidence. When Sandoval sings “I feel alive with you / I feel a sin fading / Celebrate, celebrate”, there’s just the slightest hint of sadness and uncertainty, emphasized by the slow cello. When Dulli sings these same lines, combined with the difference in instrumentation from cello to guitar, it sounds more upbeat and assured.
The cover of Björk’s “Hyperballad” is another standout track on this album – not just because it seems like such an unusual choice to cover, but also because of how Dulli’s arrangement and interpretation changes the feeling while also subverting the meaning of the song. Björk has a very ephemeral vocal style, and combined with the sparse electronic beats, synth line and faint strings, her original version has a sort of otherworldy quality to it. When she sings, her voice wobbles a bit, suggesting a lack of confidence. As she sings about metaphorically tossing parts of her life off a mountaintop to make her relationship easier, the song builds to a powerful chorus, and the effect of her own voice becoming more confident is more pronounced. In Dulli’s version, the synth and strings are replaced with distorted guitar, becoming most prominent in the “I go through all this / Before you wake up / So I can feel happier / To be safe up here with you” chorus. Perhaps the most interesting is that, while Björk becomes more confident in the chorus, Dulli’s vocals and the arrangement become less so. It’s subtle, but the increased distortion in the guitar, and the way his vocals shift into a sort of minor quality, make him sound less confident in his description of “going through all this”. It’s almost as if he is reversing the very meaning of the song. Björk in the verses shows discomfort with shedding parts of her life, things that have meaning to her, so she can be comfortable in her relationship with someone else – while Dulli offers an interpretation where tossing away important things isn’t such a big deal, but he sounds less confident singing about whether that really makes him feeling happier/safer with someone else.
“Strange Fruit” is perhaps one of the most unusual choices for a cover song, but also important to mention, as it’s perhaps the most obvious example of this not being simply a collection of songs about love. The original is a powerful song about the horrors of lynchings (“Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees”). It’s most famously associated with Billie Holliday, who performed it with a sense of melancholy, but also more irony than anger. The subtlety of her performance really only underscores the horror of what she’s singing about. In the cover version, there’s much more anger – heavy distorted guitar, heavy drumming, a snarl in Dulli’s voice. He still captures some of the irony, but it comes across in a very different way. It still feels like a legitimate song to cover, and the reinterpretation is interesting, but in some ways it also adds to the mystery of this album, trying to figure out if or how it really fits in with everything else (a similar set of questions arises with the cover of Skip James “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”.
And then we get to “What Makes You Think You’re The One”. Compared to “Feeling of Gaze” and “Hyperballad”, where some of the reinterpretation and new meaning came by the differences between Dulli and Björk or Hope Sandoval singing about love, here Dulli is interpreting another male vocalist. In this case, Lindsey Buckingham’s Fleetwood Mac song that’s generally seen as a rebuke of Stevie Nicks. Buckingham sings the whole song with a bit of a sneer, asking Nicks (presumably) “What makes you think I’m the one / Who’ll be there when you’re callin’?” Oddly enough, Dulli seems to sing the song with almost that same sneering vocal quality. The end result is a song that perhaps feels like it has almost the same meaning and feel as the original.
Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” is a fairly upbeat hip-hop soul song, perhaps fitting in more thematically with at least some of the other songs here, as she sings about searching for a real love that the subject she’s singing to can’t or isn’t willing to give. In the Blige version, there’s a bit of a complexity to her vocal performance that makes the listener go back and forth between whether she’s telling the subject of the song that she’s looking for “real love” from them, or someone else. There’s something about the Dulli version where, even though the lyrics are the same, one gets less of a sense that he’s still trying to win over the person he’s singing to. And as an odd end-note, he tacks on a bit of an “It’s real love” repeating vocal at the end, that doesn’t come from the Blige song, but seems to have more in common with the “It’s real love” chorus from the Beatles song “Real Love” assembled from an old John Lennon demo for the Beatles Anthology release in the mid-90’s.
“A Love Supreme” ends up being a fairly short song, essentially covering just the “a love supreme” vocal mantra that shows up in the middle of the “Acknowledgement” section of John Coltrane’s much longer “A Love Supreme” album. On one hand, it’s interesting to even see something like a Coltrane song included on a covers album, but it also almost feels like a missed opportunity to not do more with it than is done here. Still, it does seem to have a place here, especially given that Coltrane’s love supreme is generally interpreted as being about a sense of purity and love for a higher power, making it yet another kind of love song.
Of course it somewhat ironically leads directly into the cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Please Stay (Once You Go Away)”. Gaye’s original does have its own sense of purity, in terms of expressing a genuine sense of longing. The cover gives this song more of an edge, again thanks mostly to the heavy use of guitar distortion. Despite this edge, it still seems to express a genuine sense of longing, perhaps with a sense of strained desperation that isn’t present in Marvin Gaye’s version. When Gaye sings “I won’t be able to sleep peacefully / In bed with you beside me”, there’s a pleading quality to it, but more confidence. In Dulli’s interpretation, it actually feels like a genuine sense of dread about someone not coming back/leaving forever.
“Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair” is a traditional folk song, so it stands out perhaps by not having a really single definitive “original” to compare to. This is another song about longing, with Dulli singing “I love the ground on where she stands” and “still I hope that the time will come / When she and I will be as one”. Some versions of this song make the fact that the singer is waiting for someone to return more explicit, but Dulli manages to convey the sense of longing purely in his vocals.
The album ends with a cover of “Summertime”, written by George Gershwin for his opera “Porgy & Bess”. The original version is very much like a spiritual, and Dulli doesn’t have to do much to give it a melancholy and sad quality, as the original is already in a minor key. It’s an interesting closer though, a song that sounds sad, about how the subject shouldn’t cry, that the “livin’ is easy” and that one day “You’re going to rise up singing / Then you’ll spread your wings / And you’ll take to the sky”.
So, really, what to make of this album? It’s not just a collection of love songs, because some of these songs aren’t about love. And it’s not simply about reinterpreting and giving new meaning to these songs, as some of them, such as “What Makes You Think You’re The One”, “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair” and “Summertime” frankly have very much in common with the originals.
I’m not sure this is as an easy album to figure out, and I’m not sure there’s one clear answer to what the album is really “about”. But at the same time, it’s clearly not just a random collection of songs. It feels like what really ties these songs together is a sense of longing, of looking for something. Some of the songs are more clearly about longing for love, longing for someone else. Others, like “Strange Fruit” or “Summertime” are perhaps more abstract, but still perhaps longing for better times, for justice.
And really, this sense of longing is what Dulli brings, vocally, to each song on this album. Sometimes he reinterprets and subverts them, but that core feeling is still there, even if he flips it on its head.
So, at the end of the day, I can’t say that I’ve figured this album out. But I also think it’s a great album precisely because it isn’t easy to figure out, or definitively say what it’s about. There’s very few albums in general (covers or not) that I can say this about.