When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Bon Iver takes on Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and Leon Russell’s “A Song For You.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
When I originally pitched Bon Iver’s cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” I wasn’t aware that I was also pitching Bon Iver’s cover of “A Song For You,” Leon Russell’s classic 1970 ballad. (For that matter, I was also unaware that Raitt’s “Nick Of Time” sneaks in, appropriately, at the end of the medley, but doesn’t stick around long enough to be a candidate in this contest.) This is because I pitched the cover based on the online cacophony that resulted from Bon Iver’s recent appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, not on having heard the cover myself. (The wisdom of crowds on the web is a peculiar type of wisdom, no?) That’s why there are three options streaming below instead of the usual two: It’s Bon Iver vs. Raitt/Russell, not Bon Iver vs. Raitt vs. Russell.
The Fallon appearance came ahead of the June 21 release of Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar), Justin Vernon’s highly anticipated second LP. A more expansive effort than 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago (pedal steel, saxophone and a more elaborate use of drums are just a few of added flourishes), the new collection nonetheless retains the gorgeous and rustic feel of the debut, generally speaking. Listen closer, though, and you’ll hear also inflections of the Range-era Bruce Hornsby, most prominently on the closer, “Beth/Rest,” which has already divided listeners because of its unabashed nod to the type of lite-FM turned elevator music made popular during George H.W. Bush’s one term.
Rest assured, however, that the unveiling of Vernon’s adoration for soft pop is not a play toward irony. Aside from the fact that he seems totally genuine about his love of Raitt and Hornsby, in particular (why would he waste an opportunity to been seen by millions of viewers by singing songs he didn’t really like?), it’s not as if Vernon needs to impress the type of listener who sees artistic merit in irony. (I’m not going to use the often misused and damning “H” word.) The incredible success of For Emma, Forever Ago, which, I’ll add, is appealing because it is so honest, saw to that.