From Joy Division to Massive Attack, six great covers by José González
Swedish singer and guitarist José González is an accomplished songwriter, having given us five albums between his solo career and his band Junip, but he first gained attention from a lot of us via his transformative covers of other people's songs. He's got a real talent for adaptation, making a wide variety of music fit into his delicately finger-picked, hushed but emotive singing style. He's performed and recorded a dozen or so over the years, and we picked six of his best.
SIX GREAT COVERS BY JOSÉ GONZÁLEZ
"Love Will Tear Us Apart" (Joy Division)
Joy Division's iconic 1980 single is musically pretty simple -- the basic four-chord progression stays the same throughout the song, including the chorus -- and becomes even simpler when reduced to a single acoustic guitar and a single voice. José, though, pulls it apart just enough and finds something new, eschewing his usual delicate style for some forceful strumming.
"Smalltown Boy" (The Bronski Beat)
The Bronski Beat's landmark debut single and instant classic queer anthem was a smash synthpop hit in the UK in 1984 -- at the height of the AIDS crisis -- movingly portraying the struggles of a gay teen who escapes the alienation and homophobia of suburbia for a hopefully more accepting life in the city. Where the original, especially Jimmy Summerville's vocal performance, is big and defiant, José takes "Smalltown Boy" and makes it more of an interior piece, and it works brilliantly and movingly as a folk song.
"This Is How We Walk on the Moon" (Arthur Russell)
González had largely given up recording covers by the late 2000s, but he hadn't lost his touch, as his contribution to benefit tribute 2014's Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell showed. "It was one of those songs that I’d heard but didn’t pay that much attention to before," he said in the compilation's liner notes, "but once I started listening with the cover in mind it really grew on me. I began to hear the potential in the simplicity." More produced than the rest of the covers on this list, with percussion and fluttering woodwinds, José still maintains that intimate feel his best work carries.
"Hand on Your Heart" (Kylie Minogue)
"I was watching the video," González told us in 2006 of how he came to cover Kylie Minogue's 1989 hit. "I really started listening to the lyrics and found the lyrics didn't match the video, the really happy production." His melancholy version, which appears on the 2004 Stay in the Shade EP, puts a completely different tone on lyrics like "You know it's one thing to say you love me / But another to mean it from the heart."
"Teardrop" (Massive Attack)
By 2007, José was well known for his cover versions and while some, perhaps even himself, were wondering if he was relying on them too much, he released this version of Massive Attack's most famous song, which was then currently being used as the theme song for FOX's hit TV series House. Perhaps a bit obvious, too, after "Heartbeats" and "Hand on Your Heart," but you can't deny his ability to transform other people's songs with his unique, intimate style. His take on "Teardrop" is fantastic. It takes guts to cover a song originally sung by Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins, but José had no problem making Massive Attack's "Teardrop" his own.
"Heartbeats" (The Knife)
From his 2003 debut album Veneer, José's beautiful interpretation of fellow Swedes The Knife's single came out while the original was still fresh and on the radio. He says he was inspired by how in Jamaica there can be five versions of a hit song out all at the same time. That said, his cover might be better known than the original. That may have been helped by the song's placement in a stunning, longform Sony Bravia commercial, but his haunting rendition of the song stays with you longer than the sight of 250,000 colorful rubber balls bouncing down Leavenworth St.
Pre-order José's new album Local Valley on red vinyl, exclusively in the BV shop.