Recently, Cracked’s Robert Brockway wrote an article discussing cover songs that stole the show from the original. He concedes at the get-go that it’s a mission where the “rules are subjective and everybody hates each other by the time it’s over,” but the exercise is still a worthwhile one. As he describes it:
“The point is to think of a cover song that just completely stole the show from the original artist, not necessarily because of its quality, or arrangement, or performance, but because the cover has an intangible something that more fully embodies what the song should have been.”
There’s something I have always appreciated about cover songs. I grew up in a time where remixes were slowly becoming the well-populated domain of DIY DJ’s, and the internet featured a wealth of music and lyric repositories that made it easier than ever for people to put their own spin on a favorite song. The spirit of the aughts was to not only take the old and make it new again, but to make it personal.
Sure, sometimes you end up with Madonna’s version of American Pie, but the good outweighs the bad. As Brockway notes, Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” is a different animal than Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.” As I described in the Top Songs of 2011 list, you can shift genres from hip hop to punk; you can go from a grungy mumble to a velvet croon; you can move from bare instrumentation to big band bombast and back, and still create something equally expressive, impressive, and valid as the original piece.
That said, the aim of Brockway’s article is to spotlight songs where the later artist didn’t merely match the original, but surpassed it, or even blew it out of the water. Which brings us to “No One’s Gonna Love You,” a regret-filled meditation sung as a relationship dissolves, Band of Horses released the song in 2008 off their second album, Cease to Begin.
Brockway certainly has no love lost for the group:
“To me, their music sounds like anemic, lifeless heroin wraiths who wake sporadically to strum a guitar for 30 seconds before falling back into a nod. I’ve never actually made it all the way through this song; I always switch it off after a minute because it’s like listening to Paul Simon doing ads for The Gap.”
Cee Lo Green covered the song in 2010. Mixed and produced by Paul Epworth, “No One’s Gonna Love You” was the second single off of Cee Lo’s third studio album. That album, The Lady Killer, also features the deservedly famous song “Fuck You,” whose graces I have sung previously. Green certainly puts his own spin on the song, with a brassy, smooth, soaring rendition of the material:
As Brockway describes it:
“It’s so shamelessly, cheesily, ridiculously overdramatic that it circumnavigates all the way around Lame and lands back on the border of Amazing. Cee Lo absolutely killed this song, and I don’t mean that in the sense that he “nailed it.” No, he somehow reached into the air and wrapped his hands around the intangible concept of “song” and strangled until it stopped kicking.”
I certainly appreciated Cee Lo’s take on the song, but a big part of Brockway’s reasoning baffled me. He banks much of the greatness on the “earnestness” of the Cee Lo Green version, and makes a pretty puzzling reference in support of the idea.
“Remember the ’80s? The best parts of that decade, admittedly scattered few and far between the neon plastic skateboards and cocaine hair, were the moments when we realized, as a culture, that it was OK to be earnest. To just believe in a thing wholly, without reserve, and put everything you have into it.”
All I can say is – really?
The 80’s didn’t teach us that it’s OK to be earnest. They taught us that it’s okay to be a cartoon character. What exactly is earnest about the hollow makeup-dripped bromides of hair metal, about the shallow purple prose and supernintendo sounds of synth pop, about the larger-than-life personas that were about a related to real human emotion as a neon green blazer is to subtlety?
Nirvana was earnest; Radiohead was earnest, and yes, Band of Horses is earnest, in a way that is a hundred times as legitimate as the four chord songs filtered through the airbrushed hood of a mustang mixed with a toothpaste commercial that the 80’s represents. Believing in something and putting all you have into it means making it right and true and making it a personal reflection of oneself. It does not mean wrapping your message in the trappings of flash and bluster, or, if you will, makeup and pyrotechnics. If earnestness is something worth aspiring to in music, the 80’s are certainly not the template.
Instead, the 2000’s and in a nascent way the 2010’s have a different M.O. – the recombination. The message that our generation has taken to heart is that you can take pieces from everywhere, put them together, and add enough of your own eye for what blends and complements to make the new whole worth more than the sum of its parts.
That’s what makes Cee Lo Green’s version stand out as a worthwhile endeavor. He takes the opening melodic swirl of an early Bloc Party Song, the soothing and sweet violins that would feel at home with Temptations, and the rhythmic drum machine beat from the here and now. Green and Paul Epworth take these disparate elements and combine them to produce something lyrical and wonderful that fits Cee Lo’s style and abilities.
If nothing else, Cee Lo Green’s voice is impressive on the track. It’s a tremendous instrument that hits notes with an amazing force and intensity. It’s a well-oiled machine, traversing the song with the deftness and skill of a maestro. Ben Bridwell’s voice, on the other hand, is not. It’s a little nasal, a little rougher around the edges, a little more man on the street. But what he lacks in raw tools, he makes up for in inflection, in emotion, and in strain. Cee Lo Green’s take is flawless in its perfection. Band of Horses is haunting in its unevenness.
Cee Lo Green is clearly capable of expressing emotion. The in-your-face vibe in “Fuck You” doesn’t just come from the song’s lyrics, but from the biting, bitter, “how dare you” edge that Cee Lo laces into every vocal line. That said, his version of “No One’s Gonna Love You” feels like an exhibition. It’s not a fit of earnestness; it’s just a display.
It’s certainly a well done one, with soaring notes and musical swells that perfectly compliment Cee Lo’s amazing instrument, but it’s nothing personal. As Cee Lo might teach the poor saps trotted out on shows like “The Voice” and “American Idol,” volume alone does not equal emotion. Green certainly rises above that fallacy, but that doesn’t make the song true to heart for him.
The Band of Horses original, by contrast, feels more melancholy, more genuine. Yes, it’s softer, but it’s also not a mere musical exhibition where the lyrics of the song take a backseat to the vocal fireworks. It’s a sad lament, an ultimatum even, that happens to be expressed through song. You can hear the twinge in Bridwell’s voice when he breaks into the chorus. You feel the human element of the song that somehow gets lost amid the technical perfection of the Paul Epworth mix.
And that’s what it comes down to for me. Both Cee Lo and Band of Horses have range, but they also have different strengths and different styles that come into play. When I want the boisterous, the bombastic, and the sterling impressiveness of a well-tuned vocal instrument, I’m apt to opt for Cee Lo Green. But when I want the lamentations, the personal pain and breakdown that comes when “things start splitting at the seams,” I’ll take Band of Horses. I enjoy both versions of the song, but as far as I’m concerned, “No One’s Gonna Love You” still belongs to Ben Bridwell.