When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Beach House takes on Daniel Johnston’s “Some Things Last A Long Time.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
Regardless how commoditized sentimentality has become in the music industry or how the “starving artist” tag has made a mockery of passion (often times with good reason), the fact remains that most of the world’s great music comes from a place of hurt or anger. Or, in the case of gospel hymns or blues, as a means of survival. Sometimes, these feelings or circumstances are the sole driving force while just as often they’re merely on the periphery, informing the songwriter through transference. By definition, it’s combination of the two modes in the case of Daniel Johnston, whose well-known bipolar disorder has revealed this vicious tension numerous times in public. In his review of Johnston’s 1990 album, the same record that features “Some Things Last A Long Time,” Allmusic writer Stephen Cook notes how Johnston alternates between weeping and leading singalongs on its live cuts, which coincidentally only made it on the disc because his condition at the time hindered his ability to record an album’s worth of new songs.
It’s commendable to me that Johnston’s not known for inviting pity for his troubled state or for using it as a crutch. In fact, where other artists with similar conditions have allowed depression to make them reclusive or have harmed themselves, even to the point of death, he’s seemingly committed to perseverance, soaking in every minute of this life by continuing to perform, to collaborate and to make art. This isn’t meant as judgment—our hearts break every time a Mark Linkous, Elliott Smith or Kurt Cobain depart this earth by their own volition—it’s simply meant to highlight the exceptional, atypical fighter in Johnston, who at 49 years of age still rarely relinquishes his childlike wonder for the mental abyss, which most certainly haunts him.
“Some Things Last A Long Time,” then, becomes that much more gripping. Primarily featuring the worn sound of an old piano and his characteristic, youthful vocal delivery, the song describes the resilience of memory and the depth of love or lost love. It’s profound in its simplicity, painting a portrait in our mind’s eye of happiness found in the things we often hurry past in pursuit of more hollow endeavor—a picture on a wall with colors that feel “bright” and “true” taking precedence over any number of other distractions. Written with another alterna-culture hero, Jad Fair, the song refuses to feel dated; its lyrical and musical simplicity easily protect it from this fate. Ultimately, “Some Things Last A Long Time” feels stumbled over, a powerful work that probably sparked like magic in the two friends on one unassuming afternoon spent fiddling around with a piano and a vocal melody Johnston had woken up humming. At least, that’s how I’d like to picture it.
It seems unlikely that Johnston’s work has had a significant influence on Beach House’s Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, which made their cover of the song on their Devotion album all the more intriguing. Perhaps the most obvious overlap is Johnston’s previously mentioned simplicity, a trait that has colored the dream pop of their collaboration since the beginning. To be sure, Beach House’s music is definitively immersive—in light of Teen Dream‘s popularity, it seems that everyone knows this by now—but it’s hardly evolved over the course of three albums, which steadfastly feature Legrand’s beautiful alto and glowing keys atop Scally’s single-note-dominant guitar melodies and sparse percussion. Their treatment of “Some Things Last A Long Time” stuck to the script so well that one might not know it wasn’t an original if they’d never heard of Johnston. But, again, this isn’t meant as a slight. Rather, its meditative, synth-driven pulse, ghostly reverb and faint tambourine ensured the song changed, but remained loyal to the vision of both sets of artists.