Varieties of wild mountain avalanche

January 21, 2015

Today I’d like to share a couple of curiosities that I have encountered during my pop music odyssey. I am currently working my way through the music of the early 1980s, which means that I am shuffling into the deck, for the first time, the music of Nick Cave. Tonight I began listening to his debut solo album, From Her to Eternity, the very first song of which is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche”.

This is interesting because although both Cohen and Cave are singing the same song, the songs are radically different. Each singer has stamped it with his own distinctive personality. Cave, in particular, has taken the song and made it totally his own. In my experience, this degree of assimilation of a cover song, in which a singer seems to inhabit and alter a song that we already thought we knew, is quite rare. And I like it.

Actually, to be strictly honest, I don’t like Cave’s version, just as I don’t like being threatened and frightened in a dark alley, and for much the same reasons. Cave scares me. But I admire what he’s done; I like that he is a force to be reckoned with.

Let’s hear the songs. Here is Cohen’s original:

And here is Cave’s version:

This is not the first time this phenomenon of the absorbed, pondered, and reborn cover song has impressed me during my odyssey. Back in the early 1970s I came across a Van Morrison song that I had not noted before, and I loved, loved, loved it. The song was “Purple Heather”, and it was a thing of beauty:

I heard the song numerous times before I realized that it was a song I already knew: the old folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme”, but so thoroughly and idiomatically reinterpreted so as to be almost unrecognizable. It’s a wonderful thing.

If you don’t know the original, here it is, sung by Emmylou Harris, Dick Gaughan, Rufus Wainwright, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. That’s a room full of talent if I’ve ever seen one.

10 Responses to “Varieties of wild mountain avalanche”

  1. Janet Says:

    I can see why you didn’t recognize “Wild Mountain Thyme.” I first heard that song in Mountain View, AR at the folk center, and I bought the tape and listened to it until it was no more. I wish I could find a DVD of that recording. It’s one of my favorite folk songs.

    The first time I ever heard of Nick Cave was when my daughter said that she had seen him praying in St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.


  2. cburrell Says:

    Very interesting, Janet! Although I don’t know that much about him, Cave’s music strikes me as the work of a man who is honest and morally serious. If he has often failed to reject the glamour of evil, I am nonetheless not surprised to hear that he kneels in prayer too. His soul is a battleground.

  3. I well remember the huge disappointment I felt when Hard Nose the Highway came out (that’s the album that contained “Purple Heather”). But that one song became one of my Morrison favorites.

  4. And regarding Nick Cave: I don’t know that much of his work, either, and what I do know seems a mixed bag, but the best of it is really good. “Honest and morally serious” is certainly accurate.

    I think I could have listened to at least half of his “Avalanche” without recognizing it. On the basis of one hearing, I’m not keen.

  5. cburrell Says:

    Hard Nose didn’t impress me much either, and to be honest I never marked “Purple Heather” until I heard a live version (the one I link to above). I’ve since gone back to haer the album version, but I still prefer the live one.

    I think I read somewhere that Hard Nose was the first of Morrison’s albums over which he had complete creative control. Perhaps he overthought it.

  6. godescalc Says:

    Nick Cave casually combines ugliness and beauty in a manner all his own. Your attitude to his version of “Avalanche” is similar to how I regard his later “Murder Ballads”, which contains some good songs but… I still have little desire to hear it again (with the exception of that one song with Kylie Minogue), because it’s all about murder. (Except the last song, “Death is not the end”, which, given the miserable things that happen before death in Cave’s songs, is not a welcome prospect.)

  7. cburrell Says:

    I have never been able to listen to Murder Ballads in its entirety. “Song of Joy” might be the most frightening song that I’ve ever heard — I mean, just pure nightmare material, and I can sort of respect that. But, as you say, some of the other songs are so violent that I can’t get through them. Nor do I see why I should try. I love “Death is Not the End” though. Did you know it is a Dylan cover? The fact that at least some of the people singing sound like zombies makes it quite hilarious.

  8. godescalc Says:

    I knew it was a Dylan cover, yes. I went back and listened to his “Death is not the end” again, and you’re right. I’d forgotten that bit about the tree of life and salvation and suchlike (and hadn’t noticed the zombie thing, I think my original reaction was more like “these people cannot sing”) – I’d remembered it as “9 songs about misery and horror, and 1 song about how death is not the end [of misery and horror]”. From an artistic perspective maybe Cave should have left out the “salvation” bit just so that interpretation could stand – while thoroughly miserable, it would be a fitting coda to a thoroughly miserable album.

    I know two of the Murder Ballads on guitar – “Where the wild roses grow”, which I like, and “Curse of MIllhaven”, which I increasingly dislike singing for obvious reasons. When I lived in Germany I sang them at parties and round campfires; the German girls loved them and shrieked with laughter during “Curse” whenever I sang some particularly grisly bit. Fun times.

  9. cburrell Says:

    It’s been a long time since I listened to Murder Ballads and I don’t remember “Curse of Millhaven” at all. But I can well imagine the grisly, if not the fun.

  10. godescalc Says:

    I’d describe it, but better left unremembered.

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