Correction, July 26: This post originally misquoted a lyric from the song Drowning. The error has now been revised. I would like to thank reader James for pointing it out.
Despite that I first heard his 2008 release, Goddamned, only two months ago, 2009 has already become a Jay Brannan year for me. I’m not sure if it shone through brightly enough in my first post on this very talented singer/songwriter, but that is the best way I could come up with to describe how much his immediately accessible, beautiful, strange and durable songs have come to mean to me. It feels like I’ve known them forever, until I realize I’m actually post-rationalizing: I only wish I’d known them forever, because they would have made sad moments in the past all the more teachable and, even, more bearable, with their common-sense therapeutic misanthropy and confusingly soft-sung snarkiness, and the light moments more darkly funny, highlighting the elusive and absurd nature of even the most affectionate acts of human interaction.
It is with lyrics fragments of that album still churning around in my head that I approach his second full-length album, In Living Cover. Full length might be a stretch though, as the record clocks in at a mere 29 minutes, having sent seven covers and two new songs into my inner audio and lyric deconstruction lab. It would seem to suggest that Goddamned would be almost impossible to top, if only for the high standard it set. But then again, with their very different conceptual frameworks, I suppose they are not immediately comparable.
Except that they are, at least musically. Even though some people hold the idea of doing an album of mostly covers in low esteem, as something of an old filler trick if you don’t have enough new songs to go into session with, Brannan places himself in a long and honorable tradition in proving that doing a personal cover version that manages to re-open old songs is much more of an art than shelling out mediocre originals could ever be. That is why what could very well be interpreted as a searing critique – that Brannan makes every cover version on this album sound exactly like you would expect a new Jay Brannan song to sound like – should instead be seen as a compliment. It means that even though several of the songs, both in arrangements and vocal presentation, lay close to the original, they never lack that blissfully undramatic Brannan signature, whether it simply be his soft and soulful voice, or, as on his version of the classic nineties Cranberries song Zombie, taking what was originally a protest song about the Troubles in Northern Ireland into an interesting new context, musically and lyrically. There will always be new wars, but in an American context, Brannan’s protest, scaling back the aggression for resignation, takes on a particularly interesting meaning.
Relying on the signature Brannan vocals, some of the songs here – like Noami Terra’s Say It’s Possible, Joni Mitchell’s All I Want and Jann Arden’s Good Mother – work so well simply because they are great songs, chosen by a man who knows a good song when he hears it, and also one who knows precisely what he has to contribute to songs already close to his brand of singer/songwriter. You’ll never get me to say that his version of All I Want – from Joni’s seminal 1972 album Blue, the third best record of all time, beaten only by The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run – is somehow too close to the original, because I would consider anything other than a complete butchering of Mitchell’s superb original a supreme achievement. His minor tweakings only made me appreciate both versions more. In the instance of the other two, they stand mostly as proof that Brannan has impeccable taste. He does them both beautifully.
So far, my favorite among the covers could very well be his take on The Verve Pipe’s The Freshmen, which is also the album’s lead single. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the one song I love the most, and the one I’ll return to by default long after the I’ve tired of the rest (if that’s ever to happen), it has more to do with it being the song most improved by his take. Where the Verve Pipe version plays as a fairly formulaic, grungy experience, Brannan successfully brings it down to earth, thus highlighting the vulnerable nature of the lyrics in a way that not even the acoustic Verve Pipe version is close to. This again places the cover songs firmly in the Brannan catalogue, playing up the emotional nerve that lies in his voice. Thus, he also ensures that doing covers should not in this instance be interpreted as him in some way distancing himself from his previous musical self. He’s not taking cover in other people’s songs, so much as he’s making them a seamless but distinguished part of his own project.
That is also why the two new Brannan originals, Beautifully and Drowning, does not feel foreign on an album like this. If there is such a thing, the chorus – It’s not that your not beautiful/You’re just not beautiful to me/She said ‘How beautiful do I have to be?‘ – is vintage Brannan, showing how the surprisingly resonant elegance of Goddamned lives on. The way I read and hear his lyrics, Brannan is an acute observer of people’s need for self-affirmation through others, and how this often complicates honest communication. His trademark dark humor, is also to be found in the most unexpected places, like in the line from Drowning – I’m carving words in my arms, baby/Hey, scars are part of my charm, maybe –. There’s something very, very painful in that line that at the same time invites a sort of desperately resigned smile (part of my charm). Of the two, Beautifully is the most immediately accessible, but that doesn’t mean they don’t both feel like indispensable part of the album.
On an album full of such inspired choices then, I’m all the more surprised that Brannan took it upon himself to offer to the world yet another version of Blowin’ In The Wind. There’s nothing precisely wrong with it, it’s just that the choice is so annoyingly safe. What was once a great song whose message was bound to resonate deeply with anyone exposed to it, over the years has evolved into one of the most tried and tired safe bets in the canon of American folk music. Nowadays. even when I hear the Dylan original, it’s like I hear the scarring echoes of every bad cover version at the same time. Brannan’s failure has less to do with what he does to the song, it’s all well and good, than with what he fails to do: He does not add enough newness to the song for it not to be considered anything else than the album’s weakest link.
A weak link on a very good album, that is. If word is effectively spread that this album even exists, one day, when naming the great achievements in the history of the cover version, several of Brannan’s songs here may get a mention, alongside classics like Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower, Joe Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friends. or even my personal favorite, Emmylou Harris’ version of the Beatles’ For No One. Consider this an endorsement.