Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“These Days” was written by an old soul of sixteen, Jackson Browne, several years before he released an album of his own. The melancholy ballad was originally released on the 1967 album Chelsea Girl (a reference to Andy Warhol’s 1966 film Chelsea Girls) by the singer-songwriter, lyricist, composer, musician, fashion model, actress, and ’60s counterculture queen, Nico. It may have been Browne’s song, but Nico was the first to put a stamp on it, and her stamp was an indelible one.
As she somberly sings a self-reflective narrative about life’s concessions as one grows older (she was all of twenty-nine at the time), Nico’s deep, brooding, German-accented vocals (most famously utilized on one of rock’s most critically acclaimed albums, The Velvet Underground & Nico) add an ominous dimension to “These Days,” contrasting with the lush orchestral backgrounds. The instrumentals are compliments of Jackson Browne’s fast-tempo fingerpicking on an electric guitar (Warhol’s suggestion) and the elaborate production of Tom Wilson, who added strings and flutes, much to Nico’s chagrin. (“I asked for simplicity, and they covered it in flutes!” she said years later. “The first time I heard the album, I cried and it was all because of the flute.”) These two polar musical elements combined to create a beautifully jarring experience.
Browne didn’t release his own version until 1973, on his second album For Everyman. Browne’s take is a slower, Southern California folk rock version that features flatpicking, as opposed to the fast-tempo fingerpicking from the original version. Browne was quoted saying, “I started playing the piano. I wasn’t trying to sing it like Gregg [Allman]; I couldn’t possibly. I took the cue, playin’ this slow walk. But it was written very sort of, kind of…a little more flatpicking.”
“These Days” has inspired numerous cover versions by some of rock music’s grandest stalwarts, as well as some of music’s younger generation of independent artists. Credit for the latter can go at least in part to director Wes Anderson’s perfect usage of “These Days” in his 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums, but the universal appeal of “These Days” can be found in its two deepest roots: the serotonin flooding, Jackson Browne fingerpicking coupled with the transparent, aching vocals of the enigmatic Nico.
Gregg Allman – These Days (Jackson Browne cover)
“When [Allman] did it I thought that he really unlocked a power in that song that I sort of then emulated in my version,” said Browne, who thanked Allman in the For Everyman liner notes for the arrangment. Allman utilizes a weeping steel guitar and a humble piano to sadly reflect on days past, in his Georgia peach of a cover. His heartfelt version prompted Rolling Stone‘s Anthony DeCurtis to call this rendition of “These Days” “definitive.”
Tyler Ramsey – These Days (Jackson Browne cover)
Band of Horses guitarist Tyler Ramsey’s cover is the product of the Gregg Allman and Jackson Browne versions of “These Days.” Ramsey delivers a slow and tranquil homage to the previously mentioned greats, but makes his own mark with his cover, adding subtle harmonies and a slight country twang.
St. Vincent – These Days (Jackson Browne cover)
Annie Clark decides to forego Nico’s contralto, opting to display her delicate, angelic vocals instead. She does, however, utilize the fast-tempo electric guitar fingerpicking and lush instrumental arrangements, evocative of Nico’s original version. The result is not as contrasting, but gorgeous nonetheless.
Paul Westerberg – These Days (Jackson Browne cover)
A freewheeling honky-tonk guitar mixed with the ornery, yelping scowl of the celebrated Replacements front man and punk rock legend Paul Westerberg creates a one-of-a-kind cover of “These Days.” Westerberg’s cover is slightly wistful, but not as deflated as the others.
Mates of State – These Days (Jackson Browne cover)
The Mates of State’s fast-tempo synthesizer-dominated cover of “These Days” is a fresh and clever take on the solemn classic. Jason Hammel’s Dead Milkmen-esque vocals and his wife Kori Gardner’s mesmerizing keyboard and creative swells and pauses come together to make their cover of “These Days” almost uplifting.
You can purchase Nico’s fascinating biography of her post-Velvet Underground life, “Nico, Songs They Never Play on the Radio” by author James Young, on Amazon.