I tend to bristle at the idea of crediting an artist of performing the “definitive” version of someone else’s song. It just feels unfair to me, like it trivializes the craft of songwriting or renders it subservient to the performance. People are so smug about it, too. I know they’re not consciously doing it, but the kinds of people who heap that kind of praise upon someone who’s doing a cover version seem to treat them like they’re tearing down some dilapidated old structure and building a new, better song in its place. I dunno, it seems icky to me. A good cover version can be ten kinds of mind-bendingly beautiful, but not if the base song is absolute garbage. You’re shining a new light on an existing object, and it can bring out dimensions that weren’t immediately evident in plain sight, but unless you’re overhauling it, your work is to explore and expand.
That said, it’s hard to argue against the sheer deliciousness of British indie-pop band The Sundays’s gorgeously plaintive take on the Rolling Stones’s “Wild Horses”. The original is a real nice song, and I mean no disrespect to the Stones– though I’m not by any means a fan of theirs, I think there’s an undeniable level of craftmanship in their very best songs, and “Wild Horses” certainly falls in that category in my book. Thing is, I can’t really stand listening to the original. It drags and it plods and it’s a laborious country ballad with some lovely moments of tender sincerity but not much in the way of mellifluousness. Unlike the sheer magnifiscence of stately “Moonlight Mile”, which I wrote about a while ago, I find it difficult to sit through.
The Sundays version, though? A quietly transcendental arrangement of echoey, flickering-streetlight guitars over the silkiest acoustic base since Johnny Marr gave us “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”, Harriet Wheeler’s beguiling vocals carrying us gently along. I love this version. I love it a thousand times more than it’d be physically possible for me to love the original. It’s more yearning, more wistful, more uncertain, just more of everything that I love about music They took a plodding trudge of a song and carved it into something that feels that much more real, more intimate; whispered words between lovers in the dead of the night, a shared moment from across the room, something existing quietly and gladly beyond any grand gesture. Not only do they elevate an already-solid song to new heights, they craft a new, distinct emotional space out of it, and spend the next four minutes and forty-five seconds loitering placidly within it.
And really, only a reading this sublime could make a line as dopey as “let’s do some living after we die” sound like anything other than a discarded Dashboard Confessional line circa 2003. I don’t care that this version was in a beer commercial and in the Buffy soundtrack. This is the version that defines the song for me. And it is glorious.
Listen to The Sundays teach the old coots how it’s done by clicking the embedded player link below.