Big Star, Chris Richards and the Subtractions, Elliott Smith, Everything But the Girl, Joshua Speers, Lone Horn, Rachel Gordon, Thirteen
The magic of music can be its ability to capture the emotional intensity of a particular moment or conjure up long gone, almost forgotten feelings out of thin air. For many of us, music can carry a lot of emotional freight and today’s featured track is a stark, striking example of that power. No song captures the tender, fragile, wildly aching love of the early teen-age years quite like Big Star’s “Thirteen.” The song’s lyrics are so innocent and emotionally transparent, the singer so vulnerable and seemingly ripe for heartbreak. Wes Anderson’s cinematic illustration of the song’s themes in Moonrise Kingdom really captures the innocence of “Thirteen” and looks fabulous, even if it shirks a bit on the vulnerability angle.
Despite growing up in the 1970s I don’t think I heard Big Star’s “Thirteen” until the 1990s. Their catalogue and reputation was a bit too hipster to fall across my more AM radio radar. But when I heard it I was immediately transported back to Grade 8 and that desperate feeling I had in the pit of my stomach most of the time, crushing on nearly every boy I met but unable to tell anyone. Seems like everybody’s got a similar ‘hearing “Thirteen” for the first time’ heartbreak story. It’s a song with impact. Which makes covering it more than a bit tricky. Some say, why bother? I’d say it can be done but it takes a special kind of ear and restraint to hear just how to do it without surrendering the song’s performative beauty. Everything But the Girl recorded a fairly straightforward version in 1991 for their Acoustic album but it didn’t make the cut, only coming out on the expanded version in 2013. It’s bracing and simple and a little emotionally distant, so EBTG in other words. Who is surprised that Elliott Smith could pull off a pretty impressive cover? This version was recorded in 1996 but only released with the Thumbsucker soundtrack in 2004. Smith has a vocal delivery seemingly built just for this song.
There are actually a lot of “Thirteen” covers, most emerging post-2000, but most suffer some serious missteps. People try to bend the song into a new shape, thus losing the charm, or seem to think they can just slouch their way through a slow-dirge, finger-picking bit of shoe-gaze. Big Star make their slow pitch on the song look easy but it is hard to sound so profound without overdoing it. Rachel Gordon strikes a nice balance with guitar and piano and a vocal that avoids over-statement. Rome, Italy’s Lone Horn is one of those rare efforts that manages to speed the tempo of the song without dropping its emotional ballast. The interesting vocal harmonies and snappy lead guitar work definitely help. Chris Richards and the Subtractions do the opposite, slowing things down and breaking out different elements while still holding the song’s unique tension together. Joshua Speers takes Big Star’s original acoustic guitar starting point but then uses that to spread out in different directions, adding complementary electric guitar, vocal effects and a Beatles-in-Abbey Road blend of background as things go on. The result is careful, understated, and ultimately complementary to the tune.
Last up, a bit of a departure, Toronto’s Choir Choir Choir lead a cast of amateur singers in a touching, almost all voice rendition of “Thirteen.” I’m not crying, you’re crying.
“Thirteen” transcription image courtesy Jerry’s Guitar Bar.