In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Some of our all-time favorite covers.
Good cover artists find something distinctive in a song and make it their own, amplifying the aspects of the music that suit their range and style. Great cover artists, though, are more like archaeologists, digging into the strata of music and lyrics to find long-buried layers of meaning and emotional impact. Aimee Mann’s version of Harry Nilsson’s lonesome ballad “One” isn’t the most famous cover the song’s ever received—that honor goes to the more poppy version arranged by Three Dog Night—but its faithfulness to Nilsson’s original, and the inherent effectiveness of Mann’s vocals, dig deep to find the loneliness buried beneath years of merely good cover work.
Every version of “One” sets its tone with the song’s iconic opening beat, a pulsing, otherworldly metronome that drives the forward motion of the track. Mann’s version strips this part down to the bone, an isolated organ pulse that hangs for a moment like a telephone’s busy signal before the opening lyrics kick in. Twenty more seconds pass before the rest of the instruments join the mix, building throughout the song until the whole thing borders on cacophony.
Through it all, Mann’s vocals—and that increasingly buried pulse—push things forward. The lyrics on “One” are aggressively simple (the general theme: loneliness and rejection suck), so delivery is key. Mann forgoes the effective-but-overwrought hound-dog baying of Three Dog Night singer Chuck Negron, going for something understated and clean. She croons, but she never howls; it’s the difference between the sound of a broken heart, and one that’s in the process of breaking.
Unsurprisingly, given that it first showed up on the tribute record For The Love Of Harry (before appearing on the excellent Magnolia soundtrack), Mann’s arrangement of “One” hews closer than most to Nilsson’s original version. (The song’s also full of little nods to Nilsson’s other work, including a sample of the singer-songwriter’s voice to open the track.) But Mann abandons Nilsson’s quirkier stylistic choices for something that feels more raw, replacing violins and woodwinds with guitars and drums. The end result is a lot less dreamy, but, more importantly, it also never lets Mann’s singing get overwhelmed the way Nilsson’s eventually sinks into the swamp. Even as back-up vocalists kick in, instruments drop into the mix, and the whole thing pushes toward a peak, Mann’s voice is the guiding sound of the song. It’s in that sound that “One” finds its lonely soul—until Mann’s voice finally drops out, and that same busy-signal organ takes the listener into the song’s piano-slamming halt.