Saturday, 18 July 2015

A Quick Peek Under the Covers: These Fragile Bodies

A Quick Peek Under the Covers

Episode 2

These Fragile Bodies

Welcome to another episode of "A Quick Peek Under the Covers", in which we look at cover versions of songs which are as good as or better than their originals. This time out, we are going to look at the song "Lovers in a Dangerous Time", by Bruce Cockburn (pronounced "CO-burn"), and the cover of the song by Barenaked Ladies.

(Image credit True North, MetalGuruMessiah)

Lovers in a Dangerous Time

"Lovers in a Dangerous Time" is a song by Bruce Cockburn, who was born in Ottawa, Canada. The song was recorded in 1984 for Cockburn's album Stealing Fire.

Cockburn reports being inspired to write the song while thinking of the stirrings of romantic feelings in young teenagers, in the face of the potential threats of the day (in 1984, this would include the early stages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the Cold War).

The song has not been covered often. Indeed, it appears that Barenaked Ladies' version is only the second cover version of the song. Barenaked Ladies recorded their cover of the song for a 1991 Bruce Cockburn tribute album, Kick at the Darkness. The cover, apparently playing a key role in their own rise to prominence, would appear on their first greatest hits album.

Music video for the original version of the song.
It's... well, it's... avant-garde, you could say.

The Barenaked Ladies cover, with video.


The structure of the piece is quite simple: after a brief introductory segment, there are three verse/refrain segments. In between the second and third segment, in both the original and the cover, are instrumental interludes. Both the original and cover also have a prolonged close-out/fade-out after the third refrain.


The lyrics of the refrains are very simple, being a repetition of the words "lovers in a dangerous time" several times.

Each verse, however, offers up a different reflection upon what it means to be "lovers in a dangerous time". A few excerpts:

One day you're waiting for the sky to fall (*)
The next you're dazzled by the beauty of it all


These fragile bodies of touch and taste
This vibrant skin -- this hair like lace (**)


When you're lovers in a dangerous time
Sometimes you're made to feel as if your love's a crime --
But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight --
Got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight

(*) "One minute ..." in the Barenaked Ladies cover.
(**) "This fragrant skin ..." in the Barenaked Ladies cover.


In the original version of the song, Bruce Cockburn sings the verses, and is joined by other bandmates (or himself, overdubbed) for the refrain. The chord structure is a simple V-vi-IV progression (or possibly VII-i-VI, depending on which key you think the song is in). During the refrain, the instrumentation becomes more elaborate compared to the verses, and a little complexity is added during the instrumental interludes, with extra chords (becoming V-vi-IV-ii-I/V-vi-IV). The band appears to be a more-or-less standard form for an 80s rock band, with an additional percussionist.

In the cover version, Ed Robertson and former Barenaked Ladies member Steven Page share lead vocal duties, and the entire band (or almost all of it) joins in for the refrain and the final verse. The chord structure is simpler, being V-vi-IV throughout, without variation. The instrumentation is characteristic of the Barenaked Ladies: drum set, keyboard (piano), acoustic double bass, and acoustic guitar. The instrumentation is subdued in the first two verses, picks up a bit for the refrains, subdues for the instrumental interlude (featuring a solo part by the double bass), and picks up for the final verse, refrain, and "outro".

What Makes the Cover Work

There are, I think, three key differences which make the Barenaked Ladies cover of the song superior to Bruce Cockburn's original:
  1. The dramatic change in instrumentation. For some songs of that era, the 1980s-style instrumentation is (in my view) irreplaceable - take "Take on Me", for example. But for "Lovers in a Dangerous Time", the acoustic sound just fits better. And the richer vocal texture that the Barenaked Ladies provide is simply superb. What really sells it for me are the piano and double bass parts.
  2. The Barenaked Ladies cover is just a touch more easy going, and while remaining in 4/4 time doesn't come across as rhythmically strict. In the final chorus the tempo and instrumentation pick up to match the intensity of the lyrics. The original is just a little too regimented in this manner.
  3. Robertson and Page's delivery comes across as more emotional than Cockburn's; indeed on the whole the vocals in the cover do a better job of reflecting the spirit of the text.

So get out there with your lover, dear reader, and kick at the darkness 'till it bleeds daylight.

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