The act of covering a song is a microcosm of struggle, young and old come together in a new relationship formed from still-fracturing hearts. Who should do it and when? Should they stay faithful or warp the original? Why do some songs call out to us, seem to yearn for our own touch? How come we get so prickly and territorial when a new voice caresses the choruses that previously lifted us out of darkness? Why do these new voices sometimes strike gold in a way that the old one couldn’t? I don’t know. I like asking the questions that only music can answer. Sometimes I try to answer them, sometimes I bask in the fact that I can’t. The space of “can’t” is where the music lives. That’s the big nothing.
I’m guessing every music writer has those days when it seems like music really shouldn’t have any words written about it at all, that we’re sullying it by trying to fit sentences into the nothing. Some artists in particular speak so succinctly in their own language of pain that I don’t even want to touch them with a phrase. One such artist is Elliott Smith, one of my favorite musicians, who spent much of his life in the city of Portland, a place integral to my childhood. Smith loves to sing about misery, and I love to listen to him do it. I’m not the only one. People love to cover his songs too, and usually, they fail abysmally. I don’t think I’ve ever written about Elliott Smith, for precisely the reason I stated above: I have nothing to add that I think will embellish upon what he himself says. But, there is someone else who sings with a similar sweet precision about misery–her name is Julien Baker, and she had something to add to Smith’s “Ballad Of Big Nothing.”
Baker’s version of “Ballad Of Big Nothing” will be included on a collection of other Smith covers called Say Yes! A Tribute To Elliott Smith that won’t be out until October. I probably won’t listen to it, especially given the puzzling punctuation choice: Smith never struck me as an exclamation point kind of guy. Something I loved about Smith’s version of “Ballad Of Big Nothing” is the way it seethes allowances, the freedom he is affording comes out as almost a snarl. His big nothing was a dark wall of fact: everything fails, our freedom is not a new frontier but another mistake. It is a perfect synopsis of numbness. I didn’t think I ever wanted anyone to puncture that sullen reality.
But Baker bursts through the gloom while still honoring it, and the more I listen to her do it, the more I want her to. (I think I’d be much more likely to listen to a whole record of Baker gently tweaking Smith songs than I will this compilation.) She isn’t tearing the spine out the song at all–her version still deals with deep sadness–but her assessment of the chorus leaves a glimmer of hope. The resignation is not a sentence, but an offering: You can do whatever you want to, whenever you want to. You can do what you want to, there’s no one to stop you. But on that last chorus, she lets the phrase swell into wordless affection, a lingering, a chance. Maybe it’s the fierce brightness in her seismic voice, maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but instead of a crushing, meaningless expanse, the big nothing suddenly feels like something destined to give way to something even bigger. Do whatever you will–spit, spite, sleepless nights–they are no match. It doesn’t mean a thing. Baker’s big nothing supersedes the miserable choices of the other party; it isn’t final but infinite, it preexists. It’s really something. This is where my words about it end, I’ll let the song take you there.