The other day, I arrived at the coffeeshop that I work at and found Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” playing over the speakers (typical, I know). As I prepared for work, the album progressed to the 4th track, “War on War,” and I immediately recognized my personal emotional connection with the track. Certainly, every person aware of this album has their own connection to the music, though I would identify the emotional heft of this album as particularly individualistic for those of my generation. Personally, I came to the album only in the past few years (from the coffeeshop, in fact) and my thoughts are often connected to the friendships that I fostered at that time, as my connection to the album progressed from introduction, to familiarity and, ultimately, to respect and adoration. But in addition to these memories are the emotional bonds that I created with covers of some of the tracks on the album, which in turn heightened my connection with the original songs.
Now,when I hear “War on War,” my thoughts are directly drawn to memories of my friend’s band covering the tune. They performed a rather accurate replication, showing respect of the songwriting while adjusting the performance of the song with their individual sound. Notably, when I first heard their cover, I recognized the joy that I felt in hearing them cover a song that I knew and loved, but, interestingly, I can now better enjoy the original with respect to their cover.
Additionally, I had/have the same experience concerning two other tracks on the album. I witnessed the Brooklyn band Boy Without God (now called Wilder Maker), cover “Jesus, etc,” though as an all-male a capella version. Seeing it performed in a small venue, with everyone, including those at the bar, silently appreciating the band’s take on a classic on the audience’s generation, was profound enough to also affect my listening to the original. Finally, my appreciation for The Bad Plus’s (plus Wendy Lewis) cover of “Radio Cure” has almost reached the level of enjoying the cover more than the original, mainly because of how they move from adhering to the bright, harmonically-open return to the verse halfway through, to the dissonant and rhythmically free sections that follow it.
Sometimes covers can detrimentally alter one’s respect for a song, either by highlighting its flaws or cheapening it’s effectiveness. I have heard some people feel that way about Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” of which they argue that because the song has undergone so many transformations, it has eroded the emotional weight of the song (I’m still unpacking this theory). In my case of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the covers had an opposite effect, surprisingly, whether or not they strongly adhered to the original track. Perhaps that’s a testament to excellent the songwriting of Wilco or to my appreciation for the groups that covered those songs. Either way, they imbued the original with greater personal emotional heft and that’s what music is all about.