Stephen King really hates Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In addition to describing Kubrick’s interpretation of Wendy Torrance as “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film” he says of the film as a whole:
I think ‘The Shining’ is a beautiful film and it looks terrific and as I’ve said before, it’s like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it.
Whether or not King’s assessment is fair, (I think we can all agree it isn’t unbiased)it’s a harsh critique. He’s essentially saying that Kubrick’s interpretation of his work is a hollow vessel, lacking depth. It’s difficult to think of a more cutting criticism for a piece of imitative art. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a tricky line to walk, adapting someone else’s work. The pitfalls are numerous: redundancy, aesthetic mismatches, wrong cultural moment, and of course the constant danger of pissing off the original artist, whether or not they happen to be one of the most beloved authors of all time.
But for every empty vessel, there’s Joan Jett’s cover of “I Love Rock n’ Roll” or the film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel, The Godfather. Yes, The Godfather was a novel. No, it’s not really worth reading. The Mountain Goats’ cover of “Sometimes I Still Feel The Bruise” falls into the Jett and Coppola category of imitative art. Originally recorded in 2000 by Trembling Blue Stars, Darnielle and company covered the song only six years later for their Babylon Springs EP.
Some tMG fans might wonder if it’s worth reviewing a cover, as John Darnielle’s storytelling and lyricism are both the stuff of legend, and the crux of Goats’ appeal to many. The answer lies in the execution of the adaptation. A prime example of of what I mean is found in director Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings film trilogy. The original trilogy of books (or single novel as Tolkien would have it) is a masterwork, but an inaccessible one. Tolkien asks a great deal of his readers. Their patience is richly rewarded, but many are put off by the task and never reach the payoff.
The problem lies in the alternating linear narratives of Tolkien’s tale. While events are happening simultaneously in the universe of the book, the reader is asked to retain an emotional connection to a character she hasn’t been with for some hundreds of pages. The solution is found in Jackson’s trilogy, and is why his adaptation’s execution of Tolkien’s story is a masterwork all of its own. By coming closer to the simultaneity of the universe of the story, the interweaving narratives lose none of their potency, while lowering the bar to entry into the fertile, emotional pastureland that Tolkien’s work engenders.
Like Jackson with J.R.R. Tolkien, Darnielle and Company do not fundamentally alter the work of Trembling Blue Stars, but enhance it by their execution. The lyrics tell a straightforward and familiar tale of unrequited love:
This is just to say hello
And to let you know I think of you from time to time
I know I never really knew you, but somehow I miss you
And wish that you’d stayed in my life
There’s nothing wrong with a song about unrequited love. There’s a reason there are so many songs about it. But like Ewan McGregor giving his all in the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, Darnielle elevates the material with his trademark commitment. While the original Trembling Blue Stars version has a muted affect with soft drum taps and a Joshua Radin-esque whisper-sung chorus, The Mountain Goats’ cover brings an organ and drums upfront in the mix, giving the song a haunting Southern Gothic feel.
While “Sometimes I Still Feel The Bruise” does not find John Darnielle at the height of his yelp-singing glory, his nasal-inflected delivery on the track has a profound effect on the song’s impact. The listener can hear the anguish in the lyrics through subtle wobbles in enunciation. One moment in the song’s final chorus sticks out particularly:
I’m under no illusion
As to what I meant to you
But you made an impression
And sometimes I still feel the bruise
I find myself coming back to this song purely for this moment. The contrast between the low, plaintive “I’m under no illusion” and the warbling, drifting higher and higher without breaking “…you made an impression” is worth the price of admission all on its own. Trembling Blue Stars’ tune may not have the bard-like storytelling tMG fans are used to, but it’s a good song in its own right which is only made better by the interpretation done by Darnielle and company.