What makes a great song great? It’s probably reductive to answer with any one element alone, and yet…is “This Land Is Your Land” still a great song if it were an instrumental? What’s “Eleanor Rigby” without strings? “Johnny B. Goode” without that opening electric guitar lick? The essence of a great cover, then, is its challenge to our conceptions of what makes a great song great. Thus, you have the acoustic cover version. Or the gender swap. Or the orchestral song done in a rock style and, of course, the rock song performed by a symphony. Is the song still great if you take that element away—y’know, the element that makes the song?
Is Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” a great song without that drum fill?
With their latest single, The Choir have taken on the task of answering that question in the affirmative. This is a band who have come through a few years stacked with personal losses, including the death of their bassist, Tim Chandler, in October 2018. “In The Air Tonight” marks their first new recording since that loss. The original is, of course, a slow burn of pent-up emotion; here, The Choir take that slow burn even further, interpreting the song as a dirge, almost a drone. Derri Daugherty’s trademark swirly guitars dominate the soundscape from start to finish, now chiming, now glinting, while Steve Hindalong’s percussive accents gradually build in timbre and richness but never in intensity.
“Well the hurt doesn’t show, but the pain still grows/It’s no stranger to you and me.” And then…no explosive drum fill. No angry menace, no spitting of lyrics from Daugherty. Whereas the original builds to catharsis, this cover offers no such musical resolution; there’s no comfort here. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life,” but that longed-for moment can pass by, unmarked and unremarkable, except that the emptiness feels even more empty. It’s either brave or foolhardy to approach the song in this manner, but The Choir manage to make it their own. You’re never gonna not miss that drum fill, but that might be the point. Some losses never cease to feel fresh, and no amount of angry bravado can truly salve the wound. Anger turns to sadness, and the sadness swirls and lingers in the air.