There's nothing all that novel about covering a fizzy pop song as if it were a slow, bluesy dirge — any more than it's novel to cover a ballad as if it were a speedball punk jam. Radical transformations aren't radical in and of themselves. What's actually interesting is covering a song in a way that reveals something deeper, darker or just different, whether it's Mark Kozelek locating the vulnerability within AC/DC's "Bad Boy Boogie" or Lydia Loveless unpacking the fear, sadness and defiant defensiveness that swirl under the surface of Justin Bieber's "Sorry."
In Bieber's version — and, yes, that video has been viewed two and a half billion times — the pop star casts himself as a cad who's risking as little as possible to get what he wants; right upfront, he spins his faults as mere surplus honesty, thus dispensing the most unsatisfying possible apology. But Loveless' bluesy plainspokenness unlocks just the right amount of slow-burning desperation. (See also: the cover of Ke$ha's "Blind" Loveless recorded back in 2015.) Maybe it's a matter of stripping away the Bieber song's almost maniacally zippy electro-pop production, but her version makes the emotional stakes seem higher, and the self-pity seem harder-won.
"I actually came to this song quite oddly," Loveless writes via email. "My brother showed me the "Obama overdubs" version, and it was the first time I really paid attention to the lyrics and music. I realized it's a beautiful song, but as with a lot of pop songs, the production overrides the melody and... well, it's Justin Bieber. I was walking through the park in some city on tour a while ago and listening to it and thinking about covering it at the show that night. And when I sat down to learn it, I just felt really moved singing it. I went into the studio with [guitarist] Todd [May], and he played this really pretty reverb part over it, and it was just simple and somber to me. People keep asking me what I hear in it. I guess there's nothing like a breakup to make you lean on a tight pop song."
"Sorry" is available now, as a B-side to the digital single "Desire," via Bloodshot.