The best case of playing dress-up with someone else’s songs that I’ve ever heard, an album I regularly return to, is She Loves You by The Twilight Singers. Have you heard it? It’s the third album by Twilight Singers, a group that started as a side-project for Greg Dulli (of Afghan Whigs).
She Loves You is the band’s best album – and Dulli, a great songwriter, didn’t write anything new for the album. But you couldn’t say that he did not create anything new. She Loves You features 11 covers (the title song, by The Beatles does not appear). They are arranged to almost tell a story, there’s a narrative arc, a reason for the songs to appear in the order they do. It’s not (quite) a concept record – but like Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours (from nearly 50 years earlier) the songs (of others) have been recast to reflect a story felt (and wanting to be told) by the singer. It’s a narrative of love and heartbreak, of the emotions felt as a result; the intensity of love and love lost.
She Loves You has Dulli dipping into genres, repurposing the work of other writers, creating indie-pop/rock songs from tracks that started life as downbeat or blues songs, that went on to become jazz standards, that lived inside classic albums – in some cases barely noticed for what they had to offer as their own standalone song.
There are tunes by Hope Sandoval and Martina Topley-Bird. There are covers of Marvin Gaye, John Coltrane and George Gershwin compositions. And there are plenty of risks. It can be argued that some of them don’t really work – but I’m glad the risks were taken. The world probably doesn’t need to hear the Twilight Singers’ take on Skip James’ Hard Time Killing Floor. Certainly nothing is being improved – but it gets a pass mark for the inclusion of (regular Dulli collaborator) Mark Lanegan. And it’s a hinge for the album, a pivot point.
But the best tracks here – and there are several – are revelations, stunning examples of how to take something and make it your own.
Check out Dulli’s rewrite of the traditional Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair. And the Gershwin standard, Summertime. No mean feat to turn these into rock songs, rock songs with grit and heart and soul. (And remember, here I’m excerpting them from an album-work where they flow; helping to tell a story).
The absolute standouts, for me, are the version of Bjork’s Hyperballad (especially given the original is an amazing piece, one of Bjork’s best songs) and the cover of Lindsey Buckingham’s What Makes You Think You’re The One. On Tusk it might just be another song, one you either love or loathe (or are unaware of/indifferent to). But here Dulli gives it a push in the right direction toward accessibility – really giving the lyric a chance to shine in all its pathetic self-absorption.
A lot of people don’t like the attempt at Strange Fruit. It is a huge ask – and maybe it is completely inappropriate that Dulli duly decides to take the song somewhere else entirely. His version is not about racism – he tries to make the line about “black bodies swaying in the breeze” sound (overtly) sexual. As with Hard Time Killing Floor, we don’t really need this version but I applaud the attempt. What is art if you’re not taking a risk?
But the way that he handles Mary J. Blige’s Real Love is perhaps the album’s real triumph (well, one of the major examples). Here is a song that a lot of Dulli’s audience might not ever have been aware of – and here it absolutely shines. It’s about hearing a good song and knowing it’s a good song – regardless of genre.
It’s one thing that these songs were chosen – I’d recommend making a mixtape of the original versions and listening to them in the order that She Loves You dictates (and if you look down below I’ve done that for you) – but it’s another to hear Dulli’s telling of the tale. Full respect for the songs/originals (except, maybe, for Strange Fruit) and the guts to twist and turn the songs (especially Strange Fruit) – he can’t perform them as they were intended; he can only offer them as he intends.
I’ve always loved this album – I was hooked when I first heard it. But I’ve enjoyed revisiting it recently and hearing it as a masterpiece fashioned from the work of others. It exists, for me, as both an amazing covers album and a stunning original work. I hear it as both.