Someone recently asked me if there are any covers that shouldn’t be made and I thought about it for a moment and in careful reply suggested that I don’t necessarily believe any song is so sacred that you shouldn’t cover it out of respect. But there are some songs which, by virtue of their virtues…are very hard to cover well and therefore, shouldn’t be attempted simply because the odds of failure are so high. To wit:

John Legend and the Roots: Hang On In There (snippet)
From Wake Up! (Columbia, 2010)

I’ll have more to say about this entire album by the end of next week (short story: about as good as you’d guess…which is to say, not very) but this choice had to be one of my least favorite on the album (and there was a lot of competition). For one thing, Legend sounds like he’s sleepwalking through the vocals; it’s supposed to be laconic but not soporific. But more than that, this is a really hard song to cover if you try to do it loyally because the original was such a remarkable achievement that I just don’t think can ever be duplicated. Hear for yourself:

Mike James Kirkland: Hang On In There
From Hang On In There (Bryant, 1972). Also available on California Soul)

I’m sorry, but NO ONE is up to covering this. Can’t be done. It’s not even that Kirkland was that great a singer and if you were to just listen to he and Legend, acapella, side-by-side, it’s not wildly different (though Legend’s phrasing here is really terrible). But as a song that’s greater than its sum parts, “Hang On In There” is some magical creation, sprinkled in fairy dust and then handstamped by God. Or something like that. Straight up, this is one of the most sublime things I’ve ever heard in my life. It will haunt you, hunt you down, kill you, chase your spirit into the next life and do it all over again. If Marvin Gaye had recorded this on What’s Going On, it’d be an all-time classic. Instead, it’s merely just one of the greatest tunes of its era that most people haven’t heard because it wasn’t on a major label. Can’t. Be. Covered…unless you take it in a radically different direction that doesn’t sound like you’re trying to cover it. Alas, that’s not the route that Legend and the Roots go and hence: fail.