The cover album is the musical equivalent of the mechanical bull: no one you know has ever ridden it to perfection, but everyone just has to take their damn turn anyway, holding on for one or two glorious seconds before flattening the cocktail waitress and wasting a perfectly good pitcher of beer. On first listen, it seems even the mighty Grant-Lee Phillips is headed straight for the floor with Nineteeneighties, but the craft and thought he has never failed to bring to every band and solo project reveals itself over time. While not perfect, Phillips’s renditions of his favorite songs from the Me Decade is still a cut above the usual stopgap product churned out by every band long-in-the-tooth enough to have two or three albums of originals on the racks.
There are several key tactics that Phillips employs on Nineteeneighties to keep in mind when it’s your turn. First, and most obvious, he’s got a theme. With the late great Grant-Lee Buffalo knocking out ecstatic versions of Neil Young’s “For the Turnstiles”, Elvis’s “Burning Love”, and Phillips recently conjuring a powerful take on Lucinda Williams’s “Drunken Angel”, he could easily have turned in an album of songs by his more obvious forebears. Instead, Nineteeneighties pays a debt to the Psychedelic Furs, the Cure, and the Pixies, with a song selection that at first glance bears no obvious relationship to “Mockingbirds”, “Armchair”, or “St. Expedite”. But the thematic focus is not only a draw for those who still have Echo & the Bunnymen posters on their wall, it creates a cohesive listening experience lacking on other artists’ tours of inspiration. As a bonus, it also provides a quick history of an underrated period of songcraft for those who cannot suffer synths, or live without twang.
Phillips opens the album with the Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation”, revealing by way of slowed tempo and slide guitar that the original is actually “Sea of Love” in a sumo wrestler costume. Which brings me to the second tactic: fucking with easily recognizable songs not just for the fun of it, but for an identifiable purpose. Cat Power did this up and down on her The Covers Record, most notoriously with her opening choice, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, making it, like, the saddest thing evar. Phillips gets it right here by siphoning off the fuzz and laying bare punk’s heart and soul. He doesn’t always execute this move to perfection, however. Late in the game he takes another famous cut, R.E.M.’s “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”, and does little of note beyond over-emoting on the chorus. I saw Phillips back in ’95, opening for the southern Fab Four on their Monster tour, and was introduced to (and hooked on) their passionate roar. Phillips’s sensuous, highly emotive voice is a lot easier to accept on his own compositions. On a song as beloved, at least to me, as “So. Central Rain”, it’s not quite as easy to buy.
But even with that in consideration, Nineteeneighties started to grab me when I recognized Phillips’s third tactic: trying to make his choices sound as much like a regular Grant-Lee Phillips album as possible. Too many artists use the cover album as their opportunity to bust out the string quartet, bazouki, or awkward duet with Pop-Tart-of-the-Month. If it weren’t for the occasional song of undeniable cultural presence (“Boys Don’t Cry”), Nineteeneighties would sound for all the world like the logical next step for Phillips, a low-key blend of his first solo outing, Ladies Love Oracle, and Virginia Creeper, his last. The production and arrangement are right in line, New Order’s “Age of Consent” a doppelganger for Phillips’s own “Josephine of the Swamps”, and the harmonica on Joy Division’s “The Eternal” straight out of anything on Mighty Joe Moon.
This consistency from song to song, and with the Grant-Lee Catalog, makes it fairly easy to accept Nineteeneighties as worthy project. And if you close your eyes and forget the past twenty-five years (in a lot of ways not a bad idea), it’s not hard to pretend that most of it is Phillips’s own stuff. And that leads me to the fourth and final tactic, the recognition that a good song is a good song, surviving bad haircuts and too many zippers, leg warmers and mall tours. “The Killing Moon” sounds as fantastic in the rugged yet smooth hands of Phillips as it did bathed in the sweet brattiness of Pavement. Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Often Dream of Trains” is apparently descended from “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”. I really should buckle down and get over my fear/aversion to the Smiths. These are just some of the conclusions you might come to once you get over the initial shock and settle into Nineteeneighties.