Collecting stand-alone songs and leftovers from 2003-10, Cover Version actually includes more than Steven Wilson’s take on familiar tracks from ABBA, Alanis Morissette, the Cure, Donovan and Prince. There are also five originals, though these stripped-down, darkly confidential asides aren’t as completely sketched out as Wilson’s best work on The Raven That Refused to Sing or Grace for Drowning.
As such, it’s actually the title’s aforementioned musical updates that command the lion’s share of attention here, and for good reason. After being involved in very nearly countless original projects, under his own name and via former acts like Blackfield and Porcupine Tree, it’s strangely illuminative to find Wilson inhabiting someone else’s words.
He starts with a delicately involving version of Morissette’s most contoured hit, “Thank U,” somehow imbuing the song (just as he did, say, on Porcupine Tree’s “Stop Swimming”) with a determined fragility — or, in this case, I should say more of it. Blackfield covered this song, of course, on 2007’s Live in New York City — but not with this kind of slow-walk attention to emotional detail. ABBA’s “The Day Before You Came,” the last song these ’70s hitmakers ever recorded, is boldly ruminative — illustrating again how Wilson continued to mature at a dizzying pace over this era.
“A Forest” is an audacious choice, both because it represents a high-water mark in the Cure’s black-eyelined discography but also because it would seem, in its original recording, to have been definitively presented. Quite frankly, this song always seemed uncoverable — not matter who many bands try. Until now, that is. Wilson adds a malignant, industral sheen (reminescent, if you followed his concurrent original work closely, of “Index” on Grace for Drowning), finding new depths of macarbre despair along the way.
Wilson’s angsty take on Prince’s “Sign O’ the Times” only manages a half-measure success, being as he sticks a little too close rhythmically to the original — but his pass at Donovan’s “Lord of the Reedy River” more than makes up for it. Brilliantly stretched through the addition of looped vocal segments, Wilson finds space for startling new elements, from a strikingly rootsy guitar solo to an outro that billows up like a cumulus of sadness.
His originals include “Moment I Lost,” “Please Come Home,” “Four Trees Down,” “Well, You’re Wrong” and an album-closing, twilit meditation called “An End to End” — the latter of which is the most fully developed. There’s also a version of the oft-covered English folk song “Unquiet Grave,” which seems to build a fog-enshrouded bridge toward Wilson’s ghost-story of a solo album, The Raven.
Along the way, he’s examined a few influences, explored a few favorite themes, cleared the decks of leftover ideas. As such, Cover Version — in its own idiosyncratic, mournfully contemplative way — sets Wilson up nicely for what comes next.