Cover Classics takes a look at great covers albums of the past, their genesis and their legacies.
Last week, I wrote about the hugely influential 1991 tribute album I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen. How influential? Without it, the world – and Jeff Buckley – might never have heard “Hallelujah.”
The 1995 tribute album Tower of Song is not remotely influential. None of its covers have become classics, nor did they introduce any Cohen deep cuts to the popular cannon. Where I’m Your Fan picked the hippest artists of the time, the Tower of Song curators seem to have gone out of their way to pick the least hip. Billy Joel. Elton John. Don freakin’ Henley.
But Tower of Song is something of a foundational album for this blog, so allow me a personal anecdote. I don’t remember how I discovered this album, but I do remember when, because it was on the same college semester abroad that I started Cover Me. I’d loved covers for a couple years, but I decided to become a little systematic in my research now that I had committed to write about them regularly. Somehow this was one of the first tribute albums I found. And I listened to it constantly.
You know how there are certain songs that you associate with a moment? I have a vivid recollection of walking from the Edinburgh student library back to my flat listening to Don Henley singing “Everybody Knows.” I didn’t know the original. I’m not sure I even knew who Don Henley was (Scottish students in the mid-2000s weren’t chatting about Eagles band members much). But the song mesmerized me with its nihilism mixed in with humor. The darkest of humor too: “Everybody knows that you love me baby / Everybody knows that you really do / Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful / Give or take a night or two.”
So as a newly-minted cover researcher, I went back to hear Leonard’s original. And discovered…it wasn’t good. I’ve grown to appreciate some of his cheesy 1980s recordings more since, but at the time I couldn’t hear past the lame synthesizers, the fake strings, the drum machines. Even the backing singers – a trope he employed so well throughout his career – sounded canned.
I write in my book about how hearing Billy Stewart’s “Summertime” was the moment I fell in love with covers. Well hearing Don Henley sing “Everybody Knows” – and then hearing Leonard Cohen sing it – was the moment I discovered how a cover could redeem a song (I must not have heard Leonard’s original recording of “Hallelujah” yet!). This was still before Leonard Cohen’s three-year comeback tour where he reclaimed his most ’80s-tainted songs with stunning performances. If you wanted to hear them done right, covers like this were your only option.
So I – and this site – have some history with this album, and maybe that’s clouding my judgement. But ten years and a whole lot more knowledge of both covers and Cohen later, I will still defend Tower of Song as a great album. It’s every bit as good as I’m Your Fan. Maybe even – dare I say it – a little better. It may not be cool and it may not be important. But if you look beyond the lameness of the names involved (again, especially compared to the R.E.M.s and Pixies of I’m Your Fan), you’ll find some all-time-classic Cohen covers.
Don Henley – Everybody Knows (Leonard Cohen cover)
Hopefully my heartfelt intro has tempered your eye-rolling. Yes, it’s Don Henley, and a well-past-his-prime Don Henley at that. But this version of “Everybody Knows” is the one I think Cohen was shooting for himself. It’s got a bit of grit and a lot of heart, but it’s also big and loud and catchy. Henley is a far better singer – which, as Cohen himself would admit, is a low bar – and he sells the hell out of the melody. It would have fit just fine in the 1980s, but without becoming instantly dated.
Aaron Neville – Ain’t No Cure for Love (Leonard Cohen cover)
In the mid-1990s, Aaron Neville was bringing soul to the country. He’d even made the country charts the year prior with a Trisha Yearwood duet (more on her in a minute). “Ain’t No Cure for Love” falls squarely in that template, a doo-wop voice plus a steel guitar. And it works perfectly. In 2006, soul great Solomon Burke recorded a fantastic country-music album called Nashville. Whether he knew it or not, Neville set the template a decade before.
Elton John – I’m Your Man (Leonard Cohen cover)
Elton John covering Leonard Cohen sounds exactly like you’d expect. It is brassy and sassy as hell, with backing singers who match his through-the-roof energy level. On any other Leonard Cohen song, this would probably sound terrible. But this is the perfect marriage between song and performer.
Trisha Yearwood – Coming Back to You (Leonard Cohen cover)
In their pan of this album (“a total train wreck”), AllMusic writes that most of the covers display an “astounding lack of subtlety.” Here’s the thing: I totally agree with that. And I’ll bet the reviewer had Trisha Yearwood’s contribution in mind when he wrote that. It is anything but subtle, an operatic country-pop anthem belted to the rafters. But on this, as on many other tracks here, I think it works. Cohen himself is a master of subtlety – so much so, in fact, that it often takes a more able singer to translate his songs to a wider audience. There’s a reason it took Jeff Buckley to make “Hallelujah” a classic. Similarly, Trisha Yearwood takes a song that Leonard’s label initially wouldn’t even release in the U.S. and takes it something you could play at a wedding.
Willie Nelson – Bird on a Wire (Leonard Cohen cover)
Unlike these 1980s songs we’ve been discussing, “Bird on a Wire” needed no saving. Cohen’s original 1969 recording is good, his versions on a couple subsequent live albums were good, and preexisting covers by the likes of Joe Cocker and Johnny Cash were good too. But that doesn’t make Willie’s cover superfluous. I might even call it the definitive version (though, again, competition is stiff on this one). It has a country-pop gloss that might have subsumed lesser singers, but Willie pours heaps of emotion into it from the moment he opens his mouth. It’s going to soar no matter how much orchestra you put under it.
Read the first part in this series: our tribute to the tribute ‘I’m Your Fan’.