The Summer of Covers concludes.
This has been too much fun — and yet we’ve barely scratched the surface. So consider this a promise to do this again in a summer or two from now.
Until then, let’s finish up the Summer of Covers ’15 with a philosophical question: Can an artist cover their own song?
I don’t mean whether an artist can record the same song in a new style — Sinatra did that kind of thing all the time, often with tremendous results. Asking me to choose between my favorite version of “I Get A Kick Out Of You” or of “Last Night When We Were Young” is like asking me to choose my favorite cocktail — can’t I just have more?
See, the best covers are when an artist takes someone else’s song and does something distinctive with it, something to make it their own. So is it possible for an artist, over the course of years or decades, to grow (or maybe just change) enough, that their new record of their old song is so distinctive that it’s practically by a new artist?
I don’t know.
So let’s use a famous pair of recordings by Joni Mitchell as a test case.
Joni recorded her second studio album, Clouds, as a young woman of 25 or 26. The concluding song was also one of her most famous, “Both Sides, Now,” which she’d written as an even younger woman two years previous.
Here’s her original recording from 1969.
That’s a bright, wistful performance of a bitter lyric about heartbreak, loss, and moving on. But it might be fair to say that it’s sung by a woman who has maybe done or felt these things once or twice before, or who has merely seen her friends do them.
If Joni’s 1969 performance might seem a little too …breezy… for the weight of the material, maybe it’s because everything feels lighter when you’re only 25 years old.
With that in mind, let’s flash forward three decades to Joni’s famous live performance from 2000.
The folksy guitar has given way to strings. The original four-and-a-half minute runtime is stretched to over six minutes in this more recent version. Her voice has lost its wistfulness and gained a smoky, almost husky quality.
And that phrasing — wow, her phrasing. Whatever you might think of Joni Mitchell personally, she knows how to sell a song.
This is not a performance you listen to. This is a performance which sucks you in and makes you hurt.
That’s not a young woman who has suffered or witnessed some heartache. This is a person of age and stature who has had the years pounded into her by the inevitable mistakes and loss of a life lived large.
The early version is a clever young woman who thinks she knows something about being human. The later recording is by a woman who finally understands she’s all too human.
So maybe it is possible for an artist to cover their own song — but maybe they have to go through hell first.