There are certain musicians and albums that simply hit the right tone at the right time. Perhaps it’s the right moment for genre comeback; perhaps it’s the right time for the music industry to push something genuinely new; perhaps the flow of art and beauty into the world is, sometimes, simply serendipitous. Whatever the case may be for Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser, their rise to success has produced some of the most incredible, truly listenable music to ever emerge from a publicity stunt.
When the duo released their epic cello battle of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” in January, they were simply two esteemed cellists looking for a bit of commercial success. When they released their cover of Guns n’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” in June, under the new moniker of 2CELLOS, they were “those guys who did that insane ‘Smooth Criminal’ cover.” But now, with the release of their self-titled debut album, they are something else entirely: brilliant.
The approach Sulic and Hauser take to their music is nothing particularly new; string covers of popular rock songs are roughly as omnipresent as bluegrass covers of the same. The difference is in their artistry. From the get-go, it would have been difficult to avoid describing the duo as intense; however, this description alone is also thoroughly lacking. Their approach to popular songs is predicated not on a love of the material, but on a need for commercial viability. These aren’t some kids who maybe played some cello in high school and decided to make an album of U2 covers. These are classical, orchestral musicians who happen to be approaching songs that are slightly different from their usual material. The beauty lies in the fact that they don’t treat the material as any different. Each and every song is attacked, whether ferociously or delicately, as if it were a piece of classical music that simply needed to be chiseled from its pop-rock chunk of marble, as it’s said that Michelangelo approached the statue of David.
Each piece is treated with respect and given a magnificent treatment; they could easily stand as beautiful pieces of music without their inherent recognizability, but there is something incredible in the familiarity as well. The highlight of the album is perhaps its closing track – U2’s “With or Without You.” It feels like a soundtrack piece of the highest order, like the type of music that inexplicably encapsulates all of the beauty and joy and sadness of life. It seems nearly impossible to avoid singing to yourself, and yet all you want to do is drown out the Bono in your head to just listen to the cellos.
The most contemporary of the songs on the album – Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” and Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” – are no less delicate or stirring for their top-40 omnipresence. If anything, the covers create or unveil a beauty that had been obscured by the originals. The songs cease to be songs by Kings of Leon or Coldplay and become narratives of life and evokers of memory and emotion.
The two songs released as singles – “Smooth Criminal” and “Welcome to the Jungle” – are spectacular, but, incredibly, they are neither the album’s peak nor do they approach it. Each and every track is like a puzzle piece, filling in different necessary blanks. In a move that is nearly impossible in cover albums, this seems more like one whole piece of music rather than a haphazard collection of songs. Sulic and Hauser seem to be telling a story with the songs they choose, a story outlined with sound and left to be filled by the imagination of the listener. The songs seem to fit together musically and thematically and in ways that are difficult to understand.
Perhaps the things that seem so essentially beautiful about the album change from listener to listener, and trying to ascribe meaning to them would be all too personalized and irrelevant. The fact remains that 2CELLOS take an odd assortment of songs and string them together with a cohesion so deep as to be nearly impossible to trace. The album has the cadence of a story, all at once individualized and collective; immediate and eternal, shouting and whispering its own necessity. The question is, are you listening? The better question, then, becomes what are you hearing?
01. Where the Streets Have No Name (U2 Cover)
02. Misirlou (Traditional/Dick Dale Cover)
03. Use Somebody (Kings of Leon Cover)
04. Smooth Criminal (Michael Jackson Cover)
05. Fragile (Sting Cover)
06. The Resistance (Muse Cover)
07. Hurt (Nine Inch Nails Cover)
08. Welcome to the Jungle (Guns n’ Roses Cover)
09. Human Nature (Michael Jackson Cover)
10. Viva La Vida (Coldplay Cover)
11. Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana Cover)
12. With or Without You (U2 Cover)