Nuclear Nostalgia

Reimagining a song can be a very volatile business, whether you’re doing it through covering, sampling, expanding, or even some combination of the three.  When people are very attached to a song or an artist, they can often take a reimagining of the original badly, and understandably so given the deep personal connections that one can form with music.  For my part, many of the covers I’ve heard of songs that I already loved have felt distinctly uncomfortable, and it’s often hard to adjust to them, even if I recognize objectively that the artist reimagined the song effectively.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when Frank Ocean’s reimagining of “Strawberry Swing” by Coldplay instantly blew me away.  I’ve had and loved the original song for years, and I was aware of Ocean’s version, but I’d just assumed it was a strict cover, and (for whatever reason) had never been directly motivated to give it a listen.

When I finally gave it a try recently, I discovered that his rendition, from his debut mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA, is more complicated than I had realized.  At its foundation is a sample of the instrumentals from the original song, with a synth and guitar loop and a tribal-sounding drumbeat, over which Ocean belts out his rendition of the song.  Where it really begins to set itself apart is in Ocean’s soulful vocals and the lyrics, which quickly move from a nostalgic reverie nearly identical to the original song’s tone to the discussion of the world ending.  The song’s casual confrontation of the inevitability of a nuclear apocalypse is oddly poignant and makes the story feel right out of the Cold War era of nuclear brinkmanship.

After the song has gone through its own bridge, depicting a bitter end of the world with the narrator left behind as it does, the bridge of the original “Strawberry Swing” is sampled, with vocalizations from Ocean layered over it.  As it nears its end, the sound of an alarm clock fades in and the music fades out, acting as a symbolic wake-up from the dreamlike reminiscence of the song.

Although Chris Martin’s original vocals are extremely well-executed and Ocean’s follow approximately the same melody, Ocean’s are free-flowing and harmonized in a fashion that arguably brings more emotion to the song than the original contains.  He particularly shows this off in the second verse with melismatic singing and hitting powerful high notes, most effectively in his questioning, “We are all mortals, aren’t we? / Any moment, things could go.”  Furthermore, Ocean’s version captures the wistfulness of the original while pushing it to an emotional extreme with its world-ending themes.  His near-flippancy is compelling as he proclaims, “Just in case an atom bomb / Comes falling on my lawn / I should say, and you should hear / I’ve loved, I’ve loved the good times here / I’ve loved our good times, dear,” and the idea of wanting to express how much your time with somebody has meant before it’s too late is both powerful and relatable, whether in the face of literal nuclear war or not.

By no means is any of this intended as a criticism of the original song, particularly since Frank Ocean’s rendition could not exist without it.  In fact, my sole purpose in all of the comparisons is to emphasize exactly how effective Ocean’s version is; I love Coldplay’s original version and have ever since I got the song years ago, and yet before I’d listened to Ocean’s once all the way through, it had won me over entirely.  Whether or not you enjoy the original, if you’ve been living under a rock as I have and have missed out on Ocean’s haunting rendition for this long, I implore you to fix that as soon as possible.

You can listen to “Strawberry Swing,” as well as the entire mixtape it comes from, here.

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