Monday, 3 December 2007

covered inglory #5: bonnie prince billy & tortoise - 'thunder road'


will oldham's collaborative covers album with chicago's beard-stroking raised-eyebrow post-rock jazz-boffins tortoise came in for some stick on its release in 2006, especially for their cover of bruce springsteen's 'thunder road'.

detractors complained that oldham's strangled, ghostly vocal performance, and tortoise's decision to replace the original's surging piano rolls with sterile guitar lines leeched all the passion and urgency out of the song. round gms' house, we reckon that's the only interesting way they could have taken it. the original 'thunder road' wasn't a straight-up, Born In the USA-style anthem - it gestured towards that, but the voice-and-piano arrangement reined in the more bombastic tendencies, while springsteen's lyrics never made it clear whether the speaker believed in his dreams of automotive freedom and redemption in "the promised land", or whether he's consciously "praying in vain", already aware that "we ain't that young any more".

as springsteen says in his storytellers performance, 'thunder road' is an invitation. the speaker tries to play up the attractions of his romantic vision, but the downsides and the risks keep edging in, and "the ride it ain't free". oldham and tortoise recognise that it's this dramatic tension that makes the song great. instead of replicating the same tension, they introduce new dimensions. like nick cave's reading of 'by the time i get to phoenix', their version has a bleakly ironic and fatalistic edge. the delivery points up the hollowness of springsteen's orbison fantasies, playing up the sinister qualities of lines like "i just can't face myself alone ... you know just what i'm here for", while still making those fantasies feel like the singer's "one last chance to make it real", if only the "scared" addressee would "show a little faith".

doing a springsteen cover is today's passport to hype machine plays and pitchfork approval. his songs have characters, drama, big hooks and an air of authenticity. but of the hundreds released since 2000, this feels like the only completely successful re-imagining. to illustrate the point, included below is badly drawn boy's version - faithful, reverent, pretty - but this is the one that really leeches the spirit out of the original. whose offer would you take? eh? EH? etc.

bonnie 'prince' billy & tortoise - 'thunder road' (from the brave and the bold)

bruce springsteen - 'the story of thunder road' (live on vh-1 storytellers, original on born to run)

badly drawn boy - 'thunder road' (buy some badly drawn boy)

bruce springsteen - 'thunder road' (live 1976)

previously on covered inglory

1 comment:

floodwatch said...

Excellent analysis.