Like most Beatles songs, “Across the Universe” has had a prolific afterlife of covers. Not as prolific as some Beatles songs, but a significant number anyway. Here are four – but first, a word about a subtlety of the song’s construction that I’d never noticed before (which I found while looking for the lyrics online, coincidentally by the same guy, Ian Hammond, who wrote the lengthy explication of “Revolution 9” I linked to last week). As Hammond explains, the verse lyrics fall readily into two groups of three, with parallel phrasing and ideas aligning the different lines. But Lennon inserts the chorus after every second line, thereby breaking up what might have seemed too precious a set of parallelisms. Lennon’s reputation as instinctive musician, doing what he felt rather than consciously following strategies or typical musical logic, overlooks the incredible intuitive sense of sound and structure his music displays. He’s not just playing guitar out in some cornfield waiting for a trained professional (in this case, producer George Martin) to tell him when he’s tapped into some primitive urge (to paraphrase Scott Miller’s clever analysis from this interview).
So, once the song was out there, what did other people do with it? David Bowie covered the song on Bowie’s Young Americans album recorded in 1974, I suppose because Lennon was hanging around and added some guitar and vocals to a couple of tracks on the album, including this one. That is, to me it doesn’t sound like Bowie has any compelling reason to do the song. The phrasing and texture are sort of blanded out, the “jai guru deva” is replaced by an electric guitar, and Bowie’s “nothing’s gonna change my world” sounds less accepting and hopeful than defiant and challenged. That would be fine, except the rest of the music doesn’t really work with that mood, and the lyrics of the song don’t work with it at all. Plus we have a bad example of a “truck driver’s gearchange” modulation for the last verse. (Bowie’s covers seldom do much for me. He utterly ruined “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” for example, with his version’s campy thrustiness.)
10cc covered the song on a reunion tour in 1993 that yielded a live album recorded in Tokyo. The arrangement is a bit too early-’90s Adult Contemporary (that keyboard string synth – ick), although I like the fact that they brought back the dropped backing vocal (re-scored for organ). They also wrote an ending for the song, basically reprising the opening with an altered chord that leads to a very “She Loves You” sixth-chord at the end. That altered chord also shows up at the end of the rather out-of-place guitar solo, and in that context it just sort of hangs there, oddly, before the band plunges back into the “jai guru deva” part. Of most value for imagining what the song would have sounded like if Paul McCartney had sung it, given Eric Stewart’s rather McCartney-esque voice.
The most recent version I’ve heard is Rufus Wainwright’s (from the I Am Sam soundtrack, then reworked as a bonus track on the US release of Poses, the version I’ve posted). Both the original demo (as heard on the Beatles’ Anthology 2) and the Let it Be version are a bit static in their arrangements. While this sort of makes sense as an illustration of “nothing’s gonna change my world,” it’s not the only viable approach to the arrangement. Wainwright’s arrangement builds steadily, notably through the percussion, which becomes more propulsive as the song continues, and he achieves a rich texture that isn’t cloying, by using a smaller string section and lots of single vocals (as opposed to a choral approach in which many singers sing each note). He also thickens the harmonies on the chorus each time through, stacking higher degrees each time (7ths, 9ths, etc.). Like 10cc, he writes a true ending for the song, cutting back from his densest scoring to just his voice against a droning, even monastic, open fifth harmony. Very nice.
Finally, I’m not sure whether Laibach’s version is as nice as it might appear to be…the bizarre croaking at the end (on the album – a song-for-song cover of Let it Be, sans title track – it crossfades into the next track, “Dig It”) might suggest not.