Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Interpreting song lyrics can be a dicey endeavor. Many songwriters seem to aspire to something poetic, obscure or obtuse. While it may not be hard to deduce the meaning of lyrics like, say, “I wanna rock and roll all nite, and party every day,” so many songs defy easy understanding, either because the lyrics are vague, or hard to hear, or even utter gibberish. R.E.M.’s early songs were filled with random words that made little obvious sense, and yet along with the music, they somehow created a mood. In 2008, Michael Stipe participated in a Q&A with fans, and he said about his early songs:
those songs were mostly written to be sung live. The pa systems were so crap that no one could ever really hear the singer anyway, including the singer. We just never intended to make records, and then suddenly we were making records and the songs were in my head like that, so we just blurred the vocal and turned it way down. The songs that do have words don’t really make any or much sense, it was about creating a feeling and emotion in the room in the moment. As it turns out the records turned out pretty great too, just inscrutable. I had to learn pretty fast how to write a good or great lyric after that. Please don’t analyze them, there’s nothing but feeling there. Sing along and make it up, that’s what I still do.
Eventually, R.E.M. started writing songs with lyrics that seemed to make sense, even if that sense was sometimes hard to glean. The band’s fifth studio album, Document, included “The One I Love.” The same way that “Born in the U.S.A.” is a patriotic song only if you ignore what Bruce is actually singing, “The One I Love,” which is often dedicated to lovers, is only a love song if you totally disregard what Stipe is saying. Really—you want to be using a song that refers to someone the singer has “left behind” as a “a simple prop to occupy my time” to declare your undying love? In fact, Stipe has stated that the song was “incredibly violent” and “It’s very clear that it’s about using people over and over again.” But, after all the misinterpretation, he ultimately conceded, “it’s probably better that they just think it’s a love song at this point.”
In fact, despite its harsh message, it is a very catchy song, and that, along with the misinterpreted lyrics, made “The One I Love” R.E.M.’s first hit single and one of its most enduring songs. (And, for all of you Food Network fans, the director of photography for the song’s video was none other than Alton Brown, years before he became the charming and informative host of the wonderful Good Eats show, and many years before he transformed into the smug, annoying personality who now appears on many other shows.)
It is also a song that has been covered many times, some in ways that seem to get its edge, and others that frankly seem to miss it. There were so many to choose from that we expanded our usual Five Good Covers category so we could offer you a baker’s dozen.
Steve Wynn Quartet – The One I Love (R.E.M. cover)
R.E.M. released the single of “The One I Love” in August, 1987, and the Document album followed in September. Only a few months later, in January, 1988, Steve Wynn, who would soon be breaking up his most famous band, the Dream Syndicate, opened a live set with the “Steve Wynn Quartet” at The Comedy Club in Long Beach, California, with a cover of the song, introduced, for some reason, as “a song by Charles Mingus off his third album.” Wynn’s version is moody, a bit creepy, and he messes up the lyrics a bit. It is interesting to hear a cover done so soon after the original release, in the pre-YouTube era. Peter Buck of R.E.M. later played on one of Wynn’s solo albums, and the two, along with Mike Mills, are part of the Baseball Project, whose longevity as a novelty act has to be surprising to its members.
Rosie Thomas – The One I Love (R.E.M. cover)
Rosie Thomas, a Detroit-born singer has a beautiful voice, and creates dreamy, ethereal music. Her cover version, produced by and featuring Sufjan Stevens on background vocals, fits this mold. However, it is somewhat surprising that Thomas, who also performs edgy stand-up comedy as Sheila Saputo, an accident-prone pizza delivery person, drains any of the irony from the song, leaving it a bit toothless. Similarly, Sufjan Stevens’ own version is pretty, but lacks the weight of the original.
Butthole Surfers – The One I Love (R.E.M. cover)
On the other side of the spectrum is this live cover by hardcore band Butthole Surfers, from its officially released Double Live “bootleg” (which can be downloaded for free from the band’s website). It is anything but pretty, and its malevolence gradually devolves into thrashing, noise and feedback before it peters out. You could consider this to be a commentary on the song’s meaning, but it probably isn’t.
Sugarland – The One I Love (R.E.M. cover)
Sugarland, a country duo that has achieved the rare combination of mainstream success and critical approval, has expanded its musical palette (and maybe improved its reputation with critics) by recording and performing covers by non-country bands, including the B-52s, Dream Academy, Pearl Jam, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Beyonce, Dylan and Edie Brickell. This cover of “The One I Love,” recorded live for the band’s DVD/CD Live on the Inside interprets the song as a love duet, and while it is beautiful, it misses the point. Here’s a similarly sweet, edge-free version by Brittany Ann and Anthony da Costa, two young, talented singer-songwriters from the Northeast.
Massacre – The One I Love (R.E.M. cover)
Is there anything more fun than a rocking cover song sung in accented English? Argentine skate-punk band Massacre kicks up the tempo, adds wah-wah guitar, and hurtles through the song without appearing to give its meaning much thought. But since it is clear that a huge number of native English speakers can’t figure out what the song means, we can give these guys a pass.
The Moog Cookbook – The One I Love (R.E.M. cover)
Sounding like Booker T. and the M.G.’s with a robot vocalist, this cover by the Moog Cookbook, a duo featuring Roger Manning (of Jellyfish and Imperial Drag) and Brian Kehew (mostly known as a producer, although he occasionally has appeared with a little known Mod outfit, the Who), is performed on old analog synthesizers. Apparently, during the height of the grunge movement, such synthesizers were cheap and readily available, because they could not be played by anyone in a flannel shirt. Updating the concept of novelty classics such as Switched-On Bach, the Moog Cookbook released a few albums of covers before fading away. Here’s another synth-based cover, by German electronic musician Jens Guetschow, which mixes some of the original vocals into the throbbing music.
Liz Durrett – The One I Love (R.E.M. cover)
R.E.M. didn’t invent the Athens music scene, but their success and influence certainly helped to bring it to prominence, and they have never been shy about using their fame to support causes they believe in. In 2006, a concert was staged at Athens’ 40 Watt Club to benefit Community Connection of Northeast Georgia and Family Connection/Communities in Schools, featuring local Athens musicians covering R.E.M. songs. Members of the band were in attendance and sat in occasionally. Liz Durrett, a singer-songwriter, and niece of Vic Chesnutt, was scheduled to appear, but cancelled due to illness. She was allowed to add her live cover of “The One I Love” to the album that excerpted some of the concert’s performances, Finest Worksongs: Athens Bands Play the Music of R.E.M. Durrett’s raspy voice, her desperate wailing, and the spare instrumental accompaniment highlight the anguish of the lyrics. A similarly moving version was performed by Ohio-based band Over The Rhine in Cincinnati in 2007.
Donna The Buffalo – The One I Love (R.E.M. cover)
Hailing from upstate New York, Donna the Buffalo, which has neither a Donna nor a buffalo among its members, makes Americana roots music, with elements of cajun, rock, folk, reggae, and country. This live version of “The One I Love,” was an encore for a 2010 show in Raleigh, North Carolina. It rocks, and the haunting fiddle adds an aura of mystery that mirrors the darkness of the lyrics. It is hard to imagine dedicating this version to a lover.
Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’ – The One I Love (R.E.M. cover)
Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’, the band with the most apostrophes of all time, arose from the Atlanta music scene, slightly after R.E.M. emerged from nearby Athens. Despite their geographic and musical similarities (although D ‘n’ C had a harder edge), and their friendship with (and its members’ collaboration with) members of R.E.M., Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’ never really made a major commercial impact. This cover was recorded at a tribute concert earlier this year at the 40 Watt for Buren Fowler, an R.E.M. guitar tech and rhythm guitarist before joining Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’ from 1988-1994. Fowler passed away unexpectedly in March. In the words of band leader Kevn Kinney, his plan for the show was, “when you walk in the door, it’s not going to be Brahms or white roses. It’s gonna be full-on AC/DC. Hopefully, by the time you leave, you will have your closure, and everyone who comes will learn something about Buren. . . . It’s going to be a full rock and roll Saturday night party. [Buren] loved rock and roll. He loved Metallica; he loved Deep Purple. We’re gonna get drunk and have fun.” And this performance toward the end of the concert, featuring Mike Mills of R.E.M. and Warner Hodges of Jason and the Scorchers, proved that Kinney was a man of his word.