When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Death Cab For Cutie takes on Björk “All Is Full Of Love.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
Songs that have compelling back stories, to me, always provide a more enriching listen than, say, those context-less pop nuggets contrived to reference a feeling or an event that never really happened. “All Is Full Of Love,” the fifth and final single from Björk’s third album Homogenic, has just that kind of a story. For most of the ’90s, the Icelandic singer established herself as a legitimate solo artist, easily breaking out of the shadow of her former band, the Sugarcubes, by dropping the band’s guitar-based sound and going electronic. Where the Sugarcubes were merely a cult band in the U.K. and U.S., Björk quickly became a household name in those markets, selling far more records and garnering ubiquitous critical praise. But toward the end of the century, the visionary singer began to feel unfulfilled and isolated, detached from the lively feelings and people she craved the most.
After spending months in the mountains of Spain, largely alone, Björk struck out on a walk one day that marked the changing of the seasons. It was now spring, and the surrounding beauty and wildlife would not let her feel melancholy any longer. In an interview with Record Collector, Björk unpacked the inspiration at length:
“That song’s from a moment when I’d had a pretty rough winter and then it was a spring morning and I walked outside and the birds were singing: Spring is here! I wrote the song and recorded in half a day. It just clicked, you know: you’re being too stubborn, don’t be so silly, there is love everywhere. The feeling, the emotion of the song was like completely melting and loving everything and feeling like everything loved you, after a long time of not having that. The song, in essence, is actually about believing in love. Love isn’t just about two persons, it’s everywhere around you.”
If you’ve heard “All Is Full Of Love,” you know that Björk captured this feeling quite accurately and, more importantly, in a way that only she could deliver. Its austere, trip-hop production is compelling on its own, but her soaring vocal line and the majestic simplicity of her lyrics make the track unforgettable. Where others might have translated the woodsy inspiration more literally (“There’s A Blue Bird On My Shoulder” and “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” come to mind less as examples of pop cousins of “All Is Full Of Love” than extreme examples of this type of thinking), Björk ensnared Mother Nature’s vigor in a way that feels primitive and authentic, articulating her inspiration more in a calm whisper than a boisterous shout.
For its part, Death Cab For Cutie managed to give the song an added intensity—primarily, a brush-stick break-beat stands in place of the original’s plodding rhythm—while respecting its atmosphere. Guitarist Chris Walla’s staccato-ed single notes chime in between snare hits like clockwork, and Ben Gibbard’s vocals are delicate, but not sophomoric. Unlike last week’s non-competition, Death Cab’s “All Is Full Of Love” represents one of those rare times when, for me at least, the cover rivals the original. Appearing on 2003’s Stability EP, it aligns comfortably next to the polished, cerebral indie rock the band was making so well at the time. In that sense, for people who caught onto Death Cab early, “All Is Full Of Love” serves as a marker of the band’s glory days, a time when it was still the industry’s best kept secret. I’m sure more than a few Sugarcubes fans can relate to the feeling that adjoins that secret getting uncovered.
Cast your vote wisely.