Doing the cover version of a song can be as engaging as you wish it to be. Some artistes aspire to keep it true to the original; others offer their own interpretations. Both approaches have unique challenges. In the first, there is the challenge of nailing things perfectly, to the last detail. In the second, you must get your interpretation right; right in terms of either how enjoyable the resultant music is as distinct creation or how resonant of the original the overall reinterpretation is despite degrees of departure. It is a balancing act.
Many of us have an all-time favourite song; something that we love because it completes us and our view of life, lyrically or as soundscape. For long, that song for me, has been U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. I loved it from the day I heard it for the first time, in 1988, when a program on the nominees for the year’s Grammy Awards was broadcast on television in India. Courtesy it’s weird yet comforting rhythm and signature bass line, the song helped channelize the restlessness in the listener into a joyful sense of movement, a journey. The lyrics then proceeded to build a beautiful cathedral in the mind. Unlike so many other rock songs which end up anchored in earthly concerns and entanglements within the human collective, this one stayed spiritual and therefore, a song for the years. The influence of gospel music in the song was something I discovered much later in the age of Google and Wikipedia. What endeared it to me was the theme of not having found what you are looking for; the notion of a continuing quest.
A cover version of this U2 song is tough to do, especially one featuring reinterpretation. The original set the bar high and moulded expectations comprehensively. Room to manoeuvre is limited. How do you use so little space to shift things around and yet make a statement, uniquely your own? In early January 2021, on YouTube, I came across the cover performed by K. T. Tunstall and Pomplamoose. It was remarkable; they had a style and sound that was distinct without losing the spirituality and sense of journeying of the original. As mentioned, the original was special for Larry Mullen Jr’s unforgettable drumming and the beautifully supportive contributions by the other members of U2. The Tunstall-Pomplamoose version is less radical as it essentially builds on a fantastic original but it holds its ground, courtesy excellence in vocals, engaging bass and an airy texture that retains the song’s overall feel.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)