I’m a sucker for a great cover version. I mean, I really really REALLY like them. Johnny Cash did some brilliant covers in his day (aided considerably by Rick Rubin), and even bloated-by-their-self-importance U2 can reinterpret a song well – check out their version of ‘Dancing Barefoot’ by Patti Smith. Heck, some musicians have even done whole collections of covers, for example Mark Kozelek from Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon reworked AC/DC songs for his What’s Next to the Moon album.
What I like most about cover versions is hearing one attempt and then hearing other attempts and then – finally – hearing the original. This recently happened to me when He Who Loves His High-Quality-TV-Series and I were watching the final episode of Season Eight of Scrubs. Because the main character/actor was leaving the show, the producers threw up a bit of a weepy ending, which is always a great spot for a killer cover.
Enter Peter Gabriel’s version of ‘The Book of Love’ by The Magnetic Fields. Lots of strings, his standard smoky and just a little wanting voice. All in all it’s a quality production and hits the right bases, particularly for an end-of-season blast of emotion.
Searching around, I found this version of the song by US indy singer Natalie Dawn. Cute, pretty hard to hate (plus she’s got some of the amazing eyes available on Youtube, but that’s another story…or song). Interestingly she follows the same melody as Peter Gabriel.
Then, however, I found the original; it appears on the Magnetic Fields’ three-volume concept album, 69 Love Songs (1999). Not only is the chorus significantly different, there’s a certain cynicism, weariness and brevity to the original ‘The Book of Love’ that the selected interpreters, particularly Peter Gabriel, miss. Listen to the lyrics and hear how they seem too much of a mouthful for the ex-Genesis star (I’m actually a bit of a fan; his So album is a mid-80s masterpiece). More significantly, Stephen Merrit’s two-part harmony is just perfect; check it out in your headphones and you’ll see what I mean. Sublime.
Perhaps in the case of this song, the original is the best, because the artist knew exactly what he wanted to say and how to say it (which is always a good thing).
The point of this post? I just wanted to share with you a great song, dressed up three ways.