A few weeks ago, Benjamin Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie fame released a front to back cover of Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque. Usually, such a project would be cause for celebration: who doesn’t love Death Cab For Cutie?
And, maybe more pertinently, who doesn’t love Teenage Fanclub? The Scottish alt-rockers are one of the very finest still active acts the world has, a group of singularly talented songwriters who can combine the melancholy with the mighty like few else.
But that’s just the thing. In translating Bandwagonesque, Gibbard has dispensed with the mighty, and squared in solely on the melancholy. His cover album has all the life of a funeral dirge, and once vital songs like ‘The Concept’ are transformed into monochromatic piles of mush in the hands of the arch emo.
Gibbard has dispensed with the mighty, and squared in solely on the melancholy
Gibbard’s album feels much longer than it actually is – feels longer even than Teenage Fanclub’s original. It just never ends, dragging itself about the place with all the grace and speed of a cow the abattoir’s pressure gun hasn’t quite managed to off yet.
Where Teenage Fanclub had guitars, and big, crushing choruses, Gibbard has long stretches of electro warbling. Where Teenage Fanclub had vocal parts that were steel cut and shining, Gibbard has his heavily-accented whimper, his voice edging around the melody lines like a cat that can’t decide if it is coming or going. And where Teenage Fanclub had one of the very best records of the ‘90s, a still undiminished collection of hits, Gibbard has an exercise in vanity.
The concept behind Benjamin Gibbard’s tribute turned out to be a flawed one
Not that the issue is that Gibbard didn’t stay true enough to the source material. No. Reinvention is fine – in fact, when it comes to covers, reinvention is the name of the game. Sticking close to the source material should remain the work of tribute bands, or buskers cranking out ‘Wonderwall’ for the umpteenth time, not accomplished musicians signed to big labels.
And anyway, originality of all forms should be celebrated; any band trying to take a genuine risk – particularly when doing something as potentially aggravating as a front to back record of covers – deserves some serious kudos. It’s hard to pay homage to a song you love without ending up on your hands and knees in front of the altar of the past, and harder still to add something genuinely new to often perfect songs.
How many bloody trailers feature a great, timeless pop song transformed into a mournful a capella ballad?
But that’s the thing – the mournful cover shtick? That’s not original. At least, not anymore. It has become one more trope – a sad, bottom of the barrel, used up idea that should be considered the refuge of the uncreative and the desperate.
After all, how many bloody trailers have we been forced to endure that feature a great, timeless pop song transformed into a mournful a capella ballad? Almost every truly great tune of the ’70s and ’80s has been tortured in this manner, with constipated covers of ‘Starman’, New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Search And Destroy’ and ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of These)’ all recent examples of what feels like an unbearable, dribbling shitstorm of melancholia.
How does it feel? Dreary, for a start.
Because sure, hearing what was once a Bowie ballad about humankind’s potential to transcend the stars and become idealised, supernatural versions of themselves turned into a series of barely melodic moans will get people chattering on social media (which, let’s be real, is exactly what such covers are designed to do). But what it won’t do is provide any kind of lasting creative high.
Nailing the kind of glib, one-note melancholy that these covers aim for is easy
Showy, serious versions of great songs are about as intellectually and spiritually nourishing as a Big Mac, memorable for the exact length of time that you are listening to them and no longer. They have no substance to them; no weight. They are the auditory version of clickbait: all surface level chatter without any real beauty beneath.
And anyway, nailing melancholy is, when it comes down to it, pretty easy. Or at least, nailing the kind of glib, one-note melancholy that these covers aim for is easy – it requires nothing more than the desire to fiddle around with tempo and a singer possessing one of those voices that critics love to call “haunting”.
Tempo down, echo filter up, and sweet dreams when you quickly fall asleep
What is significantly harder is nailing what a lot of the original versions of these dirges perfectly captured anyway: genuine nuance. You don’t need to slow down a song like ‘Sweet Dreams’, slap an echo filter on it and hope for the best: that song already had a streak of sadness within it; a subtle, only-just-there howl of mourning.
By disseminating it into a Prozac-addled anthem, you haven’t created something new, or somehow subverted the work in some ground-breaking way; you have taken something beautiful and blown it up.
That’s why Gibbard’s Bandwagonesque will sink into the annals of music history like a pebble in a pond. There’s no staying power to the work because it is inherently lesser; because it is a scrap of paper rather than a book. Our only hope as audiences should be that musicians get the hint, stop moaning, and get down to the business of actually making music with subtlety, and with warmth.Write a Letter to the Editor