Bonnie Versus Bon

Recently, a friend of mine sent me a message saying that  while she typically agrees with my theory that we prefer the version of a song that we hear first over subsequent versions that we hear. However, she felt that she preferred Bon Iver’s (not his real name) version of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” over Bonnie Raitt’s original.

With all due respect to my friend, I knew she was completely wrong. As good as the song sounds in Mr. Vernon’s sweet falsetto, the song lacks the poignancy of a forty-something woman who struggled for years in a male-dominated industry and finally was able to break through with some (initially) well-earned success (which was only partially undermined by the Grammy love affair).

Thanks to Spotify, I was able to go back and listen to a song that I remember loving when it came out in 1991. I have to admit, the studio version doesn’t hold up so well now. I had forgotten how different production was back then. I hadn’t realized that Don Was (not his real last name) kind of sucked. I started to worry that the song wasn’t as good as I remembered. So listened to it again.

I hate the drum intro. The piano is a bit too much. Was that wind chimes? How could I have forgotten all this?

Okay, so maybe I can ignore the music. (Again with the fucking wind chimes?) But what about the vocal? Does it have the power that I remember?

I almost lost faith through the first verse and chorus. Raitt has a great blues voice and you should feel the ache in a song like this. In the first verse and chorus it was too clean, too pretty. Again, Raitt was a bluesman, never a sex symbol. She wasn’t too clean or too pretty. This was wrong. Thankfully, in the second part of the song, Raitt delivers. Even Was can’t fuck up “And I will give up this fight”, although he tries with the background music.

So I had to make a quick aside with regard to Was. He has produced quite a lot of stuff that I’ve listed to. Does he really suck? I noticed that he produced “Arkansas Traveler” by Michelle Shocked (not her real last name) back in 1992. I remember that there was a song I really liked on that album. What was it? Ah, yes, “Come a Long Way”. Does that song suck now? Let’s check Spotify.

The song starts quietly and Ms. Shocked’s vocals are out in front. As the song builds, the music threatens to intrude but maybe it’s the force of Ms. Shocked vocals that the music never overwhelms her. I still like that song. I will head over to Amazon later to download it.

An aside to the aside. The album is still playing while I write this. The next song on the album is “Secret to a Long Life” and I think I hear Levon (his middle name) Helm singing background on the chorus. Thanks to Ms. Shocked’s website I find that not only did Mr. Helm sing on that song but fellow Band-mate Garth Hudson was also on the song. I have always loved Mr. Helm’s voice. Time for another quick tangent. Pause Ms. Shocked, cue The Band.

I don’t know a lot of the deep cuts by The Band so I go the obvious route and choose “The Weight”. (I know this link is from “The Last Waltz” and features the Staples Singers but the Staples Singers are so great.) Mr. Helm sings the lead except for the fourth verse where Rick Danko does the honors. Listening to this on Spotify convinces me that there is nothing wrong with the sound. The music on “I Can’t Make You Love Me” really does suck.

It is interesting that Helm’s vocal is in the right channel. (I quickly check to make sure I have my headphones on right.) The snare seems to be a bit to the right also. Danko is right in the middle on his verse. I think that’s Richard Manuel on the left. Now I want to check another Helm lead on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”.

God, Robbie Robertson was great at writing song intros. Helm is in the middle here, as are Manuel and Danko in the back. Great drum work on this. Rest in peace, Levon Helm. And thank you. Now back to where I was.

Here’s the Bon Iver version. The piano intro is a bit much but at least there’s no wind chimes. Also, it must be cold in the studio. Or maybe Vernon is losing his hair. Just saying.

The camera operator seems confused about when to focus on Mr. Vernon’s face and when to focus on his hands. Canted frames. I could do without.

I see the track is on Spotify so now I’m going to listen to the song without the distracting visuals. I notice that Vernon changes the chorus slightly. For Raitt, she will lay down her heart and will feel the power but her lover won’t. Mr. Vernon, on the other hand will lay down his heart but feels the power right now while his lover doesn’t (“don’t”). I wonder if this is a mistake.

Vernon also doesn’t bring the power on “And I will give up this fight”. Instead, he breaks out of his falsetto a few times, especially on “When you’re holding me”. So Raitt wants one more night and then she will defiantly give up the fight. She’s tough and she will prove it. Vernon is apparently more interested in the hypocrisy of his lover holding him even when (presumably) she doesn’t love him.

Finally, the “Nick of Time” piece tacked on the end is not necessary. Maybe Vernon is just obsessed with the hypocrisy of females. “Nick of Time” was on Raitt’s album before the one containing “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. So Raitt finds love but then evidently doesn’t. Is she just pandering? Maybe Vernon thinks so.

In the end, I have to tell my friend that I prefer the Raitt version. In reality, I’d like to hear a version with Vernon on the piano and Raitt singing, with Vernon providing backing vocals. That could be definitive.