Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original. If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.
One of the highlights of Radiohead’s classic album In Rainbows was the song “Reckoner”. It may seem like a contradiction when I put it this way, but if I had to describe it, I’d say it was a beautiful, haunted, jazzy piece. The first instrument the listener hears is the super-clean guitars with their rich, bassy tone, a style used throughout In Rainbows but used to maximum effect here (I’ve quipped to friends before that it seemed that Radiohead forgot that there were other pickups on their guitars besides the neck pickup, but it works perfectly in this context). The stuttering rhythm of the beginning arpeggios are complemented by a shuffling drumbeat, which gives the song a right mix of propulsion as well as unease. The use of the ride cymbal also adds to the haunting quality, giving an instrumental haze through which Thom Yorke’s ethereal vocals filter in and out as he pleads in a gorgeous falsetto.
So it would seem like it would be difficult to match the greatness of this song, right?
I would say that while the original is a great song, I believe that the Gnarls Barkley cover surpasses it. The instrumentation is faithful to the original, right down to the tambourine part as played by Danger Mouse. One small difference is that instead of strings, the band opts for some distortion on the guitar, a substitution which works great in the live setting. But what sets this version apart from the original is the amazingly emotional vocal performance by Cee Lo. He gives this song all the passion that it didn’t even know it needed, turning Thom Yorke’s pleadings into a forceful demand. It’s a stunning, powerful performance, and is the key to what makes it one of the best covers I’ve ever heard.
***Side Note: I was actually at the concert in 2001 at The Gorge where Radiohead debuted an early version of “Reckoner”. It sounded pretty much nothing at all like the song we all know now.