Precision, maybe, but it’s something much more evocative than that.
A few quick YouTube searches and you’ll find that there’s a starving musician ready to cover just about every popular song out there. And some of them are actually pretty good—of course, that’s “pretty good” in the sense that they’re not terrible, but aren’t usually anything to write home about either. Too often have I watched a YouTube artist do a rendition of a popular track and sound exactly like the original artist. If I liked the original, perhaps I’d give kudos to the person for at least matching the effort, but to me, a good cover isn’t quite that neat.
Probing some examples would likely help sketch a better understanding. Luckily there were a few notable covers that released late last week, including ones by Sam Smith, Willow Smith (that’s really funny), and Robert Pattinson’s alleged new girlfriend FKA twigs.
Sam Smith Covers Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”
Sam Smith’s speaking voice creeps me out, but his singing voice is probably my current favorite. My main criterion for asserting whether or not someone can really sing has always been very simple: do they sound good live? I’ve yet to see Sam Smith live, but judging from the recorded performances I’ve seen, he’s incredible. The video above is certainly no exception.
Sam gives justice to a classic without compromising his own form, which is something that causes a lot of decent covers to miss their chance of being so much better. Juxtaposition, when done right, goes a long way; but it’s not just Sam’s voice that creates a laudable contrast here—his band definitely helps. That said, I suppose a good cover song never neglects the details, especially the importance of atmosphere/instrumentation.
I should also note that I sent this video to a friend who responded, “This is so amazing, but I could have sworn this guy’s name was Disclosure.” Disclosure. By himself.
Willow Smith Covers King Krule’s “Easy Easy”
King Krule’s swathed South London accent and raspy vocals give the original “Easy Easy” an angst that bites you as you’re listening. Somewhere between Louis Armstrong and Johnny Rotten, Krule’s delivery is demanding, especially as it vibrates against that steady guitar.
Willow’s voice shrinks in comparison, and believe me, I wanted nothing more than to hate her effort when I first heard it. Not because she still sorta looks like a walking print ad for Claire’s Accessories, and not even because she hangs with fellow silver spooners Kylie and Kendall Jenner. Maybe I’ve just grown tired of the rich kids inspired by wayward youth storyline.
All that said, though, I still ended up adding this cover to a playlist. What’s good about it is not just Willow’s ability to change the original mood of the track, but more so that she fine tunes Krule’s cadence to the effect of highlighting a truly well-written song. I think it serves as the perfect example of how some songs are simply too good in too many ways, making it impossible for the original artist to pack everything into one version.
FKA twigs Covers Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”
I admittedly didn’t know much about FKA twigs before hearing her cover Sam Smith, other than how it’s cool to say you listen to her. Much like her original songs, Twigs’ cover channels trip-hop influences, which I must also admit I’m not the biggest fan of. Her singing voice isn’t all that great here either, but the way it quivers as she sings the hook really struck a chord with me. Twigs was quoted as saying she especially resonated with the opening lines of the original, so maybe that’s where the weird emotion comes from.
The best song covers I’ve heard usually service some intent other than instant fame, one that you can hear in the artist’s delivery. Twigs isn’t trying to sound like Sam Smith—hell, it’s hard to tell if she’s even trying to sound good. I’m a sucker for dark vibes—music that makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable—and although this cover isn’t one I’d add to a playlist along with Willow’s, I can appreciate that honest inspiration often comes in abstract form.
At the end of the day, while it’s difficult (or stupid) to define the parameters of a worthy cover song, it’s clear that the music is more important than the artist. It’s like a new champion raising a trophy that we’ve seen so many others before him raise. What can he really add to it? Everybody’s lining up for their shot.