Feature Image by Virginia McCarthy and Cap Blackard
Cover Girl is a bi-monthly music column comparing cover songs to the original version. As musicians throw around genres, tempos, styles, and intent, Nina Corcoran breaks down what makes them stand out. This week’s column looks at St. Vincent’s introspective cover of a Jackson Browne classic.
Not everyone gets to write a timeless hit when they’re a mere 16 years old, but Jackson Browne happens to be one of them.
In the mid-’60s, Browne was trying to find his voice and a footing on which to amplify it. The folk singer-songwriter pitched his work to various publishing houses. When he didn’t hear back, he set aside time to record proper demos and, come the turn of 1967, mailed them to Nina Music Publishing in New York City. One song in particular stuck out to the company: “I’ve Been Out Walking”. The song was an early version of “These Days”, a manifestation that lacked the country stylings found on his own properly recorded hit. But he wasn’t the first person to release “These Days” officially. Nico was.
That same year, Nico recorded “These Days” for her 1967 album, Chelsea Girl. She brought life to the sound through deadpan delivery, dropping her voice low to counteract the music behind her. A fast fingerpicking done on the electric guitar by Browne trickled downwards, the notes dripping off the capo like small raindrops, a certain style of melancholy at their center. Browne’s guitar and lyrical genius found new tone through Nico. The strings — perhaps the most iconic part of her cover apart from her voice — unfortunately weren’t Browne’s doing. Producer Tom Wilson added them after the recording sessions wrapped, receiving approval from neither Nico or Browne, yet amplifying the song’s power all the same by doing so.
It wasn’t until 1973 that Browne finally decided to record his own song. “These Days” appears on For Everyman and sounds remarkably different than the original demo. Lyrics were changed, fingerpicking was swapped for flatpicking, and slide guitar appeared with ease. The whole rendition sounds ripe with California influences, merging folk rock with eternal loneliness, the type of performance that frowns through its contentedness, upset with life but still level-headed enough to carry on.
It’s strange to note that the man who first wrote and played “These Days” wasn’t the first one to record it. An added sense of loss and weight should emerge in the song because of it, but Browne doesn’t seem to mind. He often performs “These Days” live with fingerpicked guitar the way it appears in Nico’s rendition. In fact, not only is Browne aware of how Nico’s cover is perceived — a rendition popularized by pop culture — but he’s open to the sea of other covers that continue to arise, preferring them to his own rendition.
“[The Allman Brothers play ‘These Days’] better than it was written. Nico, too. You know, you’re not going to believe this shit: I’m going to play you something that just got sent to me yesterday. Do you know who Ab-Soul is?” Browne told The Nation in 2014. “He did ‘These Days’, a version of ‘These Days’. So fucking great.”
Perhaps that’s a surprise, the way he opts for humbleness over self-importance when many of his aging peers do not. Browne has been a pleasant interviewee over the decades. When questions about “These Days” arise, he doesn’t roll his eyes. Instead, he appreciates the love — respects it, even. To find that in a musician, especially one rooted in country but restyled for the ever-expanding indie rock landscape, feels special at minimum.
The covers pour out, and they pour out quickly. There’s the howl of The Tallest Man on Earth whipping Browne’s words around like a game for a 2009 Take Away Show session. Ghostly electronics chase beside a drum machine in The Golden Palominos’ version released back in 1993. Elliott Smith brought the song’s devastating weight to new depths at shows in 1999. Organ finds its place in Mates of States’ 2004 indie pop version. Even Drake’s recent cover seemed passionate enough, Auto-Tune included. Each style reflects the song’s flexibility, a facet of Browne’s songwriting that, even when coming from the fingertips of a 16-year-old, shows depth and emotional awareness that many identify with in later adulthood.
Then, in 2007, St. Vincent tacked a cover of the song onto her 2006 EP, Paris Is Burning. It seemed to come from nowhere. Yet for her, and everyone else who covers it, she found herself playing it when she needed its comforts the most. Just listen to how she performs it.
Annie Clark wasted no time showing her skill on guitar. From her earliest days, spider-like fingerpicking and pedal-heavy effects seemed to come with ease. Yet here, packed with “Paris Is Burning” and “What Me Worry?”, Clark leans back. Everything is soft. Her words don’t sound so sharp. She’s singing as if memories play from a projector in her brain, caught up in the moments, joyful and tragic, that shaped her over the years. By performing with her whole life put into the song, St. Vincent allows “These Days” to become her own.
With her worn electric guitar in hand, she lets each note chase after the next, descending downwards in a musical sigh. With pauses between each verse, xylophone notes ring out like church bells in the distance. It’s soft and patient. The fuzz of her amp can be heard, if turned out loudly enough, humming warmly. This isn’t a cover about reciting words or revving up the natural dramatics of Browne’s creation. There’s no need for edgy strings. There’s no shouted one-liner. For St. Vincent, “These Days” is about curling up inside of the tones, letting the lyrics sink in and finding out how to survive their truths when they refuse to leave.
After all, that’s what makes Browne’s song a cherished gem among musicians: the lyrics. Clark takes his words the extra mile by singing them with an attentiveness and awareness willing to get lost in the despondent rush. “These days I seem to think a lot/ About the things that I forgot to do/ For you/ And all the times I had the chance to,” is as much a personal anecdote as it is a universality.
You can practically see Annie Clark staring straight ahead as if a floor-to-ceiling mirror sits across from her. “Now if I seem to be afraid/ To live the life I have made in song,” stings, and yet at the same time, she sings it softly enough that it seems to cause little distress, if any at all.
And if you’re wondering, yes, it sounds just as beautiful live. She stopped by Atlantic Sound in Brooklyn to perform it in 2007. The DUMBO Session is slow and hushed. The details are different, but her delivery maintains a similar beauty, a pairing of gentle guitar and lyrics sung in a saddened, clouded haze. Quintuplets of “La’s” and “Ooh’s” float out of her mouth like clouds. It’s intimacy that feels like your own. That’s how you know her version is one that sees the beauty in each section of the song. “These Days” is a song of regret, young and old; St. Vincent mastered it by scaling back instrumentally and leaning very far forward personally. Who can blame her? Listen to the song. It’s impossible not to do the same.