Iconic older singers do good business with covers and standards these days. There are a few different approaches. Rod Stewart is up to five volumes of his American Songbook series, which does standards (and sells many CDs) the straightforward way. If you’re lucky enough to have heard Paul Anka’s versions of "Jump" and "Eye of the Tiger," you’ll be familiar with the mildly campy approach. And then there’s the surprising project that reinvigorated Johnny Cash’s career working with Rick Rubin on grave, minimal covers of songs like Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” That’s the tactic that’s come to be seen as the artistic approach, the credible one. The music world always finds it easier to connect with older people when they seem all weathered and dark.
Neil Diamond’s new covers record, Dreams, seems to take its cue from Cash and Rubin: the songs here aren’t dark, but they’re solemn and portentous, mostly with a sparse backing of piano and acoustic guitar. I would almost say it’s like listening to a Leonard Cohen album, but that makes it sound stranger than it is: the effect is more like Diamond is singing each song the way you would at the funeral of someone who’d always loved it. Which is not so strange when he’s doing an obligatory take on Cohen’s own “Hallelujah” the unlikely official album of 21st-century solemnity but is a pretty surprising move for a rendition of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.” (Diamond originally wrote that song, which makes this an odd sort of “cover.” But if you’re ever arranging a funeral for a huge Monkees fan, this version has you covered.) Something about that mood makes a few of these tracks “Desperado,” “Midnight Train to Georgia” bizarrely compelling, though it’s up in the air whether you’ll feel compelled to enjoy them or just giggle a little.
Part of that is a function of Diamond’s voice, which is not exactly a sage and gravelly thing like Cash’s. It’s a voice we’re used to associating with cheery stage shows, and a singing style that, at this point, can feel ultra-familiar in the way William Shatner’s acting used to full of dramatic cadences that are funny when other people parody them, and thus super-cool when they come from the original source. Shatner figured that out a long time ago, and promptly ruined the whole arrangement. Diamond’s a lot more likable than that, and hearing him gravely intone the song “Yesterday” in a lonely, disappointed voice can have hard-to-describe effects on the nervous system.
The soundtrack from For Colored Girls..., Tyler Perry's high-stakes film adaptation of Ntozake Shange's text, is solemn and portentous in a rather different way. The project is "high stakes" because Shange's work has been life-changing for enough people that a movie version is bound to provoke serious argument and Perry’s facing the additional hurdle of making it not just as a man, but as a man who rose to fame partly by dressing up like an old woman in broad, moralistic comedies.
It’s not that the music here is uniformly solemn. It’s being asked to perform an absurd, impossible task somehow embracing as much as possible of the entire modern experience of black American women so it stretches in a few directions. But when you’re trying to create a mass-market product that speaks to a topic that complex, things are bound to wind up reserved, careful, sensitive, and possibly sapped of the vitality that made people respond so strongly to Shange’s work in the first place.
The film brings together several generations of black actresses, and the soundtrack follows suit with singers there’s far more vocal talent here than you’d normally expect from thirteen songs. Gladys Knight and Brooklyn retro-soul singer Sharon Jones sit alongside pop artists like Leona Lewis and Estelle, although the timelines bend back and forth between them all: Knight’s track sounds nicely modern, while Estelle is singing choruses from an Irving Berlin song. There’s an opera singer (Karen Slack), some sprightly left-field r&b (Janelle Monae, Macy Gray), and a tiny nod to the fact that modern black music involves a lot of electronics (Zaki Ibrahim’s “Ansomnia,” which sounds at least as modern as the nineties). One of the big setpieces is all about crossing through time to connect people. It’s a stitched-together version of Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” a song that works a bit like Shange’s text each verse speaks for a different archetype in the experience of black American woman. The first verse here is from an original recording, but then the song leaps into the present, with the other three sung in turn by Laura Izibor, Ledisi, and Simone’s own daughter.
It’ll be interesting to see how this music which, even when it’s joyful, is united by a kind of muted, rainy-gray quality fits into the film. Judging by the trailers, deep rainy-gray solemnity is one of the main moods we’re meant to be picking up on. Interesting, too, to think of all the women we might wish were on this soundtrack instead. Because no matter what your reaction is that the music should be grittier, more modern, less composed, more expressive, more youthful, whatever it reflects the heavy weight of adapting a text that people feel represents for something, and the inevitable fact that, no matter how sensitive or serious Perry has tried to be about it, he won't represent it the way they know it.