Marissa Nadler's "The River": The Art of a Cover Song



Cover songs have been an integral part of music history for as long as recorded music has existed to the public. Artists within most primitive genres would utilize covers in a variety of ways - whether that be to capitalize on an already established hit song, to pay tribute to an influential or even unappreciated artist, or to simply put their own spin on the song in general. These sentiments are displayed throughout a number of blues, jazz, and pop songs of the day.


With these early genres in particular, if a song would end up being covered at a relatively consistent rate, it would end up being known as a "standard" of the genre. Knowing this, it is no mistake that cover songs are incredibly influential in shaping the careers of more than a plethora of artists, as not only do these songs showcase what the musician doing the cover do, but it may also turn on the listener in question to either a trailblazer of music or someone who they may have never heard of at all.

As covers continued to be released throughout proceeding decades, some had the immediate impact to become equally if not even more well known and celebrated than the original songs themselves. Examples of this scenario include Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" (originally by Dolly Parton), Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah (originally by Leonard Cohen), and Johnny Cash's "Hurt" (originally by Nine Inch Nails). This further proves the fact that cover songs are more important to the musical landscape than some care to believe.

Though the covers that I listed above are great in their own right and deserve all the recognition they receive, there is one cover that I believe is the textbook example of how to most efficiently and perfectly cover a song. This comes in the form of Singer/Songwriter Marissa Nadler's cover of the Bruce Springsteen classic, "The River".

Originally released in 2011 on Soundcloud and later placed on her 2017 "Covers" record, Nadler impeccably defines exactly what a cover song should be with this track. Remarkably, she accomplishes this with almost every song off of that album, which just goes to show how talented of an artist she truly is.

To speak on Springsteen's original before getting into the cover, this is known as one of The Boss's most memorable songs to date for a very good reason. The title track to his fifth studio album, the song is a prime example of great storytelling through music as a medium.

Springsteen tells the story of a teen who desires to rebel against his communities standards, as he forgoes being raised to do as his father and instead gets married and becomes a father at just 19 years old.


Things go sour for the rest of the song, as we learn that as the boy grows older, he becomes less and less financially stable as a result of his actions, presumably making him rethink his rebellious nature of old. The river itself is used as a symbol of cleansing throughout the entire song, as each chorus calls back to an different instance of going there to escape whatever issue the couple were facing at the time.


But for such a dark and thought-provoking story, Springsteen's instrumental choices are considerably run-of-the-mill for a ballad. The production is a bit too dense for my liking as well, but even still I really do enjoy the song and respect it as an all-time great. Hearing it a ton as a kid goes a long way too...

For all that The Boss accomplishes with his original version, Nadler redefines and perfects in every single way. Just by hearing the lyrical synopsis of the track, it sounds almost too fit for a song by her. If you're familiar at all with Nadler's work, you would know that she loves writing about other people's experiences to an extensive amount. It's really no wonder why she gravitated towards this song at all.

Now what Nadler does that a reasonable amount of covers fail to do is definitively reformulate the existing song into their own. Many artists will outright take the song at its basis and just play it normally - and this is fine in a lot of cases. But Nadler's mindset in covering this song proves to make for immeasurably better results for what it is.


To start with the production and instrumental musicality, instead of the solid and normal sounds that Springsteen brought to the ballad, she takes a stripped down approach with only an acoustic guitar to accompany her. This arrangement makes the atmosphere of the song just so much more telling and present. The song never needed overblown instrumentation at all.


It really feels like the man in the story would sit down and sing this ballad out with just a guitar. The slowly finger-picked guitar fills its role in every way possible, but it most importantly compliments Nadler's stunning vocals to the highest level.

Marissa Nadler without question has one my favorite voices in all of music. Her vocals take up any atmosphere they are put upon, most of the time being ones of large ambience and a certain darkness to them. Her reverberated tones are enough to send shivers through anyone's body for just how enveloping they are; this coupled with the lyrical tones of most of her own songs put the listener in a completely mythical and ominous setting.


To put it bluntly, all of these vocal and lyrical aspects prove to fit The River faultlessly. The narrative is displayed much better through her voice rather than Springsteen's, as the feelings of the character at hand are even more upfront with the former's rather than the latter's. Nadler provides a sense of immersion that Springsteen just doesn't lay out.


A great illustration of this notion is Nadler's profound first person role in the song; she even changes her vocal inflections to that of a strong southern drawl to fully encapsulate the listener into the character's position as possibly one in the Reconstruction Era of the South. Add to the fact that she's playing an opposite gender role, and you get one of the most one-on-one experiences in the history of music.

To say that Nadler's cover is astoundingly unappreciated is an understatement. This is the textbook example of a cover song done right - through its transformative mindset, its ability to stand alone as its own song, and pure musicality at a level not seen too often. I implore anyone who hasn't heard this gem to immediately check it out on Youtube or Soundcloud, and if it strikes you in a similar way as I, then you should definitely purchase her Covers record off of Bandcamp. Not many artists can claim to have not only my favorite cover ever, but one of my favorite songs of all time - but if it's going to be anyone, it would have to be Marissa Nadler.

The Grand Duke is run by the Honors Newspaper and Journalism class at Marlington High School, and administered by Kaytlin McCoy. 

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