In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about songs that were originally created by men but were better covered by women.
Nina Simone is best known for torch songs and black empowerment anthems, but her greatest unsung talent was for rendering complex female characters. The best example is a song Simone wrote herself, “Four Women,” in which she profiles a female quartet—Aunt Sarah, Soffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches—representing diverse facets of the African-American experience. Her performance lends the women distinct, dimensional personalities, as if each is based on a real person. Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” actually is based on a real person—Suzanne Verdal, Cohen’s friend, with whom he would drink tea and loaf around Montreal. Their relationship was intimate, but not sexual, a distinction blurred by Cohen’s ambiguous lyrics: “And just when you mean to tell her / That you have no love to give her / Then she gets you on her wavelength / And she lets the river answer / That you’ve always been her lover.”
Though Cohen eventually recorded the song himself, it was first recorded by a woman, Judy Collins, who put “Suzanne” on her 1966 album In My Life. Simone recorded the definitive version three years later. The song’s second-person perspective makes it easy to interpret for a singer of either gender, but the lyrics about the woman who “feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China” require an earthiness Simone has in spades. No offense to Collins, whose recording is perfectly lovely, but when she sings about Suzanne, she sounds like a character in a short story. Simone’s “Suzanne” sounds like someone she knows, someone to whom she’s told awful secrets while drunk on brown liquor. Simone breathes such life into the woman, she might as well be Simone’s own creation. Suzanne, meet Peaches.