When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy takes on Sufjan Stevens’ “All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
Much has changed for Sufjan Stevens since we first met his acquaintance in the early part of the aughts. Or so that’s how the story goes. The Age Of Adz, his most recent album, traded the stoic, orchestral-folk sound that made him a minor icon during the better part of the last decade for dark and sprawling electonica. It’s the most “personal” of Stevens’ albums (so said the critics)—drawing on lost love, anxiety and his experience with a rare neurological virus that derailed his work for months—and also the most divisive.
To be fair, critics weren’t the only ones speaking of Adz as if it were the first honest look into the songwriter’s personal life. The press release for the album espoused the same idea. And, of course, most of us know Michigan and Illinois as a terrific form of fiction more than as first-hand accounts of Stevens’ life itself. Storytelling was also used as a narrative device on Seven Swans, though biblical references pre-dated and supplanted the more historical and geographical scenes of those records, respectively.
However, when I listen to “All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands” (the opener of Seven Swans with a namesake of Isaiah 55:12), I don’t get the sense that Stevens was telegraphing his thoughts and passions any less intimately in 2004 than he did on Adz six years later. Sure, he’s adopting the wonderment expressed by the biblical writer at the beauty of the natural world, but Stevens’ awe seems unshakeable, too. For what is great writing if not merely a tool, on one hand, to lend words and perspective to something we as readers already know within? Stevens may unpack his emotions more literally in his recent work, but transparency doesn’t necessarily translate into being more “personal.”
For his part, Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) gives us a quintessential cover of “All The Trees.” With the help of Meg Baird, Emmett Kelly, Ben Boye, Van Campbell, Sabrina Rush and Danny Kiely, the rhythms, melodies and instrumental palette shift ever so slightly, making plain Oldham’s reverence for the track and his singular ability to alter its feeling at the same time. The cover is just as solemn as Stevens’ original, but Oldham’s brooding and earthy touch can’t be mistaken.
One final note having nothing to do with style preferences: Oldham’s cover is part of a new, Stevens-approved collection called Seven Swans Reimagined, all proceeds of which are benefiting the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Other artists on the record include the Gregory Brothers, Joshua James, Inlets, Half-Handed Cloud and more. In other words, your contribution here is a win/win for everybody.
Cast your vote wisely.