When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week David Bazan takes on Radiohead’s “Let Down.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
Of the countless times I’ve been moved by Radiohead’s “Let Down,” none stands out quite so much as when, on May 12, 2003, it provided the soundtrack to receiving the news of my grandfather’s death. I was living at home in Panama City, Fla., at the time, eating a bowl of soup as the bittersweet, technophobic beauty of OK Computer drifted uninhibited through my parents’ house thanks to a recent upgrade to surround sound. In that moment, I felt comfortably detached, marveling at the power of music to make me feel so many things at once.
Then my grandmother called. We spoke very briefly, as is usually the case when news like this, especially when unexpected, needs to be shared. (I don’t remember anything after “your grandfather collapsed in the back yard today,” nor did my grandmother have the time or heart to serve as the event’s spokesperson.) So as quick as the word was delivered, I was back to my soup, alone, the first chords of “Let Down” tip-toeing back into focus.
Given that I was blindsided by the call, my first reaction was not to cry but to stare blankly in shock at the dining-room wall. I was young enough to have never taken mortality seriously but old enough to sense that, while I would be in need of some comfort, my hurt would have to wait so that I could support my mother, a role-reversal that became necessary for perhaps the first time in my life up to that point. Enhancing the sense of duty was the knowledge that her mother’s death had also been unexpected, so I was sure that her father’s sudden passing would carry with it an extra weight. Moreover, one of her best friends had also died tragically just a few years earlier, so, despite her optimism and unshakeable faith in God, I sensed that my mother would, like any other human, feel absolutely let down at this point. Just like the character in the song, only her consternation, as I conceived it, would be directed more at the heavens than at an encroaching presence of modernity.
Despite my immediate concern for mom, however, I did begin to own my hurt somewhere around the point where Phil Selway’s beat opens up and Thom Yorke begins to sing, “You know, you know where you are with/Floors collapsing/Floating, bouncing back,” before predicting that one day he’d grow wings and be crushed like a bug in the ground. I wasn’t entirely sure what he was getting at, but his melodic phrasing broke me in two as “Let Down” roared like some ethereal spiritual toward its majestic finale. The song ended too soon but not before it imbued in me a sense of strength—and a reminder that the most beautiful things in this world are often born of the most horrific.
It would seem that this experience, so far as I’m concerned, would cement a preference for the original over David Bazan’s cover. But that thinking would be misguided. Through the years, whether as Pedro The Lion or under his own name, Bazan is the only other songwriter who has instilled this depth of feeling in me through music. And, if you know anything about Bazan’s mistrust of the original-sin narrative that shaped so much of his early life, you know that when he sings “Let Down,” it’s probably more than a simple act of artistic reverence at play.
Cast your vote wisely.