Like Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, which was transformed in the popular imagination by Jeff Buckley's haunting version of John Cale's cover, there is a plurality of high-profile, popularly dominant sources for These Days, Jackson Browne's melancholy yet ultimately optimistic tribute to the general malaise and lonesome depression that characterizes the soul after a long relationship has come to an inevitable end. But where in the case of Halellujah the versions which rose to obscure the original were recorded long afterward, in the case of These Days, Nico's version was recorded first, in 1967, with Browne on acoustic guitar and Velvet Underground chums Cale and Reed on everything else -- making Jackson Browne's 1973 version a dubious original, despite real popularity in and out of his fan base.
As such, cover versions of These Days tend to fall into two camps: those that cover Nico, and those that cover Jackson Browne. The former seem more popular among a certain indiefolk crowd, especially after her version lent hipster cred to the soundtrack for The Royal Tannenbaums, calling us back to it's fragile, anxious, somewhat spacey sound; you can hear the secondhand influence of Nico in more recent covers from fringefolkers Kathryn Williams, St. Vincent, and Mates of State. Meanwhile, fellow seventies icons Gregg Allman and Kate Wolf clearly have Browne's slow, simple poetics and clear, open-hearted delivery in mind; so, a generation later, do relative newcomers Denison Witmer, Fountains of Wayne, and Tyler Ramsey.
But as others have pointed out long before me, the bifurcated trunk of the musical tree that is These Days versions is relevant to an evolution of song not only because of the curious history, but because the choices made in each version affect the meaning of the song. And here we are not just talking musical interpretation, either: Nico's version is lyrically different as well as musicially distinct, and the lost second-person subject of the penultimate line, the focus on belief (I don't think I'll risk another) over feeling (It's so hard to risk another), changes the narrator into someone more narcissistic, less historied, and -- some believe -- less believable overall.
From a coverblog perspective, then, sourcing each cover becomes merely an exercise in lyrical attention. And though a few seem to be applying Nico's lyric to Browne's tone, as in Johnny Darrell's country cover; most, such as the aforementioned, go whole hog for one side or the other. Only a very few more recent covers arguably attempt to transcend both -- most notably Barbara Manning's acoustic electronica, and Brandon Seyferth's comprehensively lo-fi musical rewrite.
But this is not to say that Nico's version, and subsequent covers of it, are less viable as song: the delicate lyrical interpretation and breathless tension compensates, making tone serve where subject had before. Or is it afterwards? Either way, here's the two prototypes -- Nico's, and a rare 1971 live recording from Browne, with his take on the song still raw and tentatively performed, plus his more familiar, more poignant 2005 live version, for diversity's sake; the 1973 produced version is easily available -- along with a hefty set of choice Single Song Sunday coversong from the usual wide assortment of folk, presented in no particular order, the better to appreciate each cover for what it is.
Enjoy, as always. Feel free to mention your favorite cover in the comments, or send it along via email if it's not already here. And if you like what you hear, follow links above and below for websites and artist-preferred-source album-purchasing.
- Nico, These Days
(from Chelsea Girl, 1967)
- Jackson Browne, These Days
(live at the Jabberwocky Club in Syracuse, NY, March 1971)
- Jackson Browne, These Days
(from Solo Acoustic Vol. 1, 2005)
- Kathryn Williams, These Days
(from Relations, 2004)
- Tyler Ramsey, These Days
(from A Long Dream About Swimming Across The Sea, 2008)
- Denison Witmer, These Days
(from Recovered, 2003)
- Kate Wolf, These Days
(live 1979; collected on Looking Back At You, 1994)
- Gregg Allman, These Days
(from Laid Back, 1973)
- Barbara Manning, These Days
(orig. from a 1989 7"; more Barbara Manning here)
- Mates of State, These Days
(from the Wicker Park Soundtrack, 2004; also this split bill 7")
- Brandon Seyferth, These Days
(from Hot Heels Records EP, 2006)
- Fountains of Wayne, These Days
(from B-sides release Out of State Plates, collected 2005)
- St. Vincent, These Days
(from the tour-only EP Paris Is Burning, 2006; more St.V here)
- Johnny Darrell, These Days
(from Singin' It Lonesome: The Very Best of 1965-1970)
We'll be back Wednesday, possibly with that subgenre coverfolk post I alluded to a few weeks ago. Also coming soon: more old songs from new artists, a bit of bluegrass, and a look at this year's New England folk festivals. In the meantime, stay sane, and don't forget to enter our Sarah McLachlan contest!