Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
In the week after John Lennon’s death, the universal outpouring of grief obscured a significant anniversary; his first post-Beatles album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, had been released on December 11, 1970 – ten years, almost to the day, before Mark David Chapman shot him. It was an anniversary rarely noted at the time; those who gathered outside the Dakota were more ready to sing of giving peace a chance and imagining all the people than they were to sing lines like “They hurt you at home and they hit you at school” or “The dream is over.”
Now that the album is older than John ever got to be, has it lost any of its power? In short, no. When John tore down everything he ever believed in, stripped off every piece of armor he ever wore, he revealed more of himself than any star had ever dared to do. Even today, when barriers between stars and their fans are lower than ever, no famous person with a camera and a mirror has revealed more of themselves than John did in these songs. “That’s reality,” he said, not about a type of television programming, but about his belief in himself and his wife. Times change, but these core values remain, and even if no singers are left to tap into them quite like this, any listener can still rediscover them here.
Another question – how can anyone cover songs so deeply personal, so clearly coming from one man’s view of his life, and make them something more than faint echoes? The answer: like this. And this. And this…
David Bowie – Mother (John Lennon cover)
David Bowie turns his rich croon on Lennon’s opener, recorded in 1998 for an unreleased tribute album. It doesn’t have the bulldozer pace, the spare arrangement, or the primal screams of the original, but while the pain may not be bonecutting, the emotion of the song is very much in evidence.
Bill Frisell – Hold On (John Lennon cover)
Earlier this year, Bill Frisell released All We Are Saying…, a collection of Lennon covers from Beatles days and beyond. His “Hold On” stays fairly close to Lennon’s, with the minor differences of being twice as long and without the self-encouraging lyrics. The loose, jazzy flow brings across the warm optimism of the original.
Nathaniel Mayer – I Found Out (John Lennon cover)
Nathaniel Mayer had a couple minor hits in the sixties, then pulled a disappearing act that would’ve had Keyser Söze taking notes. When he reappeared in the twenty-first century, his voice had become a fierce rasp – in other words, perfect for covering “I Found Out.” With a song and a voice that were equally raw and hard-driving, Mayer blows the bloody doors off with a gut-churning performance.
Los Paranoias – Working Class Hero (John Lennon cover)
“Working Class Hero” was the most Dylanesque song on the album, but its anger and confusion at being forced into lock-step with the machinery of life keep it sounding as current as anything released today – little wonder Green Day leapt to cover it for a benefit album, and even less wonder that it resonated enough to become a minor hit. This version comes from the former netlabel Hippocamp, and features a band named after a Let It Be outtake that sounds vaguely like Laibach. If it’s a thoroughly rethought version of “Working Class Hero” you want, look no further.
Matthew Sweet – Isolation (John Lennon cover)
When Matthew Sweet was promoting Girlfriend, his 1991 magnum opus, his fan club released Goodfriend, a collection of alternate takes and obscurities (now available on the two-disc Legacy edition of Girlfriend), which included a home recording of “Isolation.” Once again, we may not hear Lennon’s own howl of anguish, but thanks to the emotion inherent in the song, we can still feel it.
Okkervil River – Remember (John Lennon cover)
When Lennon wasn’t laying himself bare on this album, he was encouraging himself. With “Remember” he did a little of both, dredging up unhappy memories before reminding himself not to feel sorry and not to worry about the past. Okkervil River perfectly capture the anxious restlessness of the verses to Lennon’s “Remember,” as well as the release in the reassurance of the chorus.
Jimmy Nail – Love (John Lennon cover)
One of John’s most beautiful love songs; consider how many different verbs are used in, say, “Across the Universe,” and then note that the only active verb here is “is.” It doesn’t get any simpler or more direct than that. Jimmy Nail, an English actor and musician, is self-deprecating enough to have released an album called 10 Great Songs and an OK Voice, and talented enough to get his recording of “Love” into the UK top forty.
Rocky Dawuni – Well Well Well (John Lennon cover)
Living proof that reggae isn’t exclusive to Jamaica, Rocky Dawuni, a.k.a. “The Bob Marley of Ghana,” recorded “Well Well Well” for the Amnesty International benefit album Instant Karma. The reggae format isn’t the place for any imitations of Lennon’s tonsil-shredding screams, but the acceptance of the “oh well” lyric is right at home here.
Zelia Duncan – Look At Me (John Lennon cover)
From Ghana to Brazil for another of Lennon’s gentler songs. Duncan swings so cool and sways so gentle that any feelings of uncertainty expressed in the lyrics are scattered in the soft breezes of the southern hemisphere.
Meshell Ndegeocello – God (John Lennon cover)
On the original album, this was Lennon’s Great Statement, as he announced and renounced every significant touchstone of his life in order to be reborn; it was just like starting over, ten years before “(Just Like) Starting Over.” Meshell Ndegeocello and her bass make for an equally spare setting, and with a few gentle adjustments to the lyrics to make them universal, she softly brings home the same points, and they resonate just as deeply as her bass playing does.
The Minus Five – My Mummy’s Dead (John Lennon cover)
Lennon reaches the acceptance stage of grief and sets it to a lowest-fi “Three Blind Mice.” The Minus Five version goes on longer, but the hollow void of the original is here, numbed to bare comprehension, with all the emptiness of a penny rattling in a garbage can.