The covers album has become a ubiquitous but not much lauded exercise. The implication seems to be that covering a song can never be the same work of genius that creating the original can. Even the use of “original” (what else could we call it, the origin song?) versus “cover” reminds listeners that to cover is not to create. But let’s take the cover seriously for a moment… I mean, why not?
Probably every artist—no matter their art—has a moment of wondering what they can bring to the world that is new. The ultimate criterion for artistic genius seems to be originality. But as one of my friends said, “Nobody gives a bloke a hard time for recording Mozart, do they?” Nor do they give Jerry Lee Lewis a hard time for being a self-described stylist. And in this day and age, when sampling, remixing, and collaging multiple songs and artists into mega-songs whose sole creator can hardly be determined is clearly an art form, why hasn’t the cover gotten its due?
Perhaps it seems like something a beginner would do; most bands start as cover bands. In the beginning, you cover; in the end, you are covered. But surely most musicians become musicians because they love others’ music. And just as writers start as readers, isn’t there the same payoff to continuing the love and study of the music of others? And when a musician as thoughtful as Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater takes on a covers project, surely his goal is not just to pay tribute, but to create.
There are several ways to listen to Shearwater’s new album, Fellow Travelers (Sub Pop Records, 2013), their ninth. First, on its own, without any particular knowledge of its conceit (it consists almost entirely of covers of bands with which Shearwater has toured). Second, as a side-by-side, song-by-song comparison of covers and originals (and much like when the optometrist asks you which is better, the left lens or the right, the differences can be blinding, as in Shearwater’s reworking of Coldplay’s “Hurts Like Heaven,” or barely distinguishable, as in The Folk Implosion’s “Natural One”). Or third, and perhaps most satisfyingly so, much like you can read an annotated version of Joyce’s Ulysses, you can do a complete study of Jonathan Meiburg’s intentions—reading his accompanying liner notes on touring (surely one of the loveliest pieces of writing to ever be paired with an album), looking up his explication of each track, making your own assessment of the alienish humans in a desert landscape cover art, or the deserted humans in an alien landscape video, and researching the Trotsky reference made by the title. Fellow Travelers is more than an album of assorted covers and b-sides, it’s a personal essay written in multiple forms.
The story that accompanies Fellow Travelers is all about being a musician on the road with other musicians. What is important to Meiburg’s narrative is not that these are covers, but that they are covers of bands—ranging in variety from Jesca Hoop to St.Vincent to Coldplay—with which Shearwater has toured. The idea is not to pay tribute or bring attention to or reinvent (though those things happen) these songs, but to create meaning by grouping them together. The story can’t be told via covering just any bands; these have to be bands that come with Meiburg’s memories attached.
The road, for Meiburg, is its own world where everything eventually looks alien and you are never where you are, you are always just gone, just past, just steps away … and your only constant is those traveling with you. Or as Meiburg puts it in his liner notes, “Touring means constant motion and constant routine… every other place and person you see will be long gone tomorrow, if not five minutes from now… [and] the other bands you are traveling with seem like the only other three-dimensional beings in the world.”
Fellow Travelers is an album about looking at the future unfurling in front of you and continuing to walk on into it. Most of life is not the stage, but the road, Meiburg seems to be saying, and a lot of the time it is both dark and beautiful. And so the road becomes a metaphor for life as an artist, you are always looking ahead, you are always looking to your fellow artists for companionship and inspiration, and you are always just steps away from the sublime and/or utter despair.
But truthfully, without Meiburg’s prose accompaniments, I’m not sure this album would have led me to these thoughts. Just like I associate “Time After Time” with Jeremy Arfield and Haverford Junior High’s eighth grade dance and you don’t, a lot of musical associations are not universal. And as with most personal essays, there is the story the writer tells on the surface, and the one just beneath. Fellow Travelers is as much a commentary on making music as it is on touring.
The interesting thing about covers is they are both text and meta-text. The nature of Shearwater’s revisions make each song a commentary on song-writing and song-structure and song-style. As Meiburg writes at The Talkhouse, “When you play someone else’s song, you get to think, and learn, about basic stuff like: What makes a song a song? Is it the lyric? Is it the melody? How much can you distress a song without injuring its soul….” A covers album like this, in which some songs are retitled, re-cut, tracked with bird songs and electronica, allows us inside the process of making a song.
In looking for an analogy to consider the cover, I thought first of translation. But whereas in translation the goal is to convey the same experience through different language, the goal in covering a song seems to be the opposite—to convey a different experience through the same language. And this is an amazing challenge, not one to be dismissed lightly, as so many covers do.
Fellow Travelers is one step away from a Shearwater album—much like a cover is one step away from its original—yet still a cohesive part of their overall canon and, regardless of its conceptual conceit, worthy of listening to on its own merits (penetrating beats, refrains that linger, and a sense of completion as you move from the opening question, “can you trust a human being to do the right thing,” to the final answer, “oh you fucked up life” sung in an empathetic and affectionate tone).
Shearwater’s first eight albums are the musical equivalent of heaven and earth—grounded in images of the natural world but soaring musically into the expansive unknown. (Aptly, many of Shearwater’s references—including the band’s name—are ornithological.) Fellow Traveler’s one original song, “A Wake for the Minotaur,” a collaboration with their former tour manager, the ever-lovely Sharon Van Etten, is in the Shearwater vein, with rivers, lakes, floods, canyons and a soft, sad tone that speaks of heartbreak and a little bit of hope. But as good as the song is, it seems the hardest to place in this company. The album fosters it well enough, but it doesn’t entirely fit the conceit. On the other hand, Clinic’s “Tomorrow,” Xiu Xiu’s “I Luv the Valley OH!!” and The Baptist’s General’s “Fucked Up Life,” in their Shearwater incarnations, become a rousing trilogy that should have been together all along. The drilling refrain “I won’t rest” intoned over and over in “I Luv the Valley OH!!” turns the song into a celebration of endurance, echoed in the punchy iambs of “Tomorrow” and again in the tender-voiced “Fucked Up Life.” Listening to Fellow Travelers is a pleasure in every incarnation (dare I say, I liked almost all of these songs better as Shearwater covers then I did in their original form). But ultimately Fellow Travelers may be most interesting as an intellectual exercise in which the listener is asked to consider at what point a song stops being the same song, what generates meaning, and how the emotional responses of a listener can be manipulated. Maybe Fellow Travelers is most interesting because it invites the listener into the process of making music and allows us to imagine its very creation. When Meiburg quotes Trotsky, “As regards a fellow traveler: the question always comes up–how far will he go,” the question could be how far along the road will Meiburg’s fellow musicians travel, or it could be how far into the realm of originality will their music go, and how far, in consequence, will this lead Shearwater’s music. Cover albums so often feel like stop-gaps in which artists make some money between actual albums; but Fellow Travelers, with its embrace of influence, is more suggestive of a transition than a pause, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it allows for even more experiment—and originality–in whatever Shearwater produces next.
Ayşe Papatya Bucak teaches in the MFA program at Florida Atlantic University. Her writing has been published in a variety of journals including Prairie Schooner, Witness, The Fairy Tale Review, Brevity, and Creative Nonfiction. Her short fiction has been selected for the O.Henry Prize Stories anthology and the Pushcart Prize. She lives in South Florida, but was born in Istanbul, Turkey.