It’s a cliché festival of psychic knife-throwing gypsy outlaws and it sounds corny on paper, but when you hear it, it works on this very natural dream-like level, like magical realism. It’s almost like a little opera about coffee! He’s singing these soaring harmonies with Emmylou Harris and they make this little line about one more cup of coffee seem like the most romantic statement you could make to a lover.
This is a really good point to bring up. One of the things that is so striking about Bob Dylan’s lyrics is how effortlessly he combines the fantastical aspects of the song with the more banal ones. He weaves this incredibly awe-inspiring and larger then life tale of sorrow yet concludes each verse with such a seemingly modest refrain. Of course it’s easy to ignore this when you’re distracted by the harmonies and gypsy violin, which is precisely how the original recording works. It points out how lyrics act as a neutral ground when it comes to popular song and the performance is what takes it in a particular direction. It’s quite clear where Bob Dylan took it but The White Stripes went in a completely different direction.
To do a successful cover version of a good song, most of the time it is important to subvert the original recording. To do a successful Bob Dylan cover it is always important to subvert the original. Without this you’re left with a dry track of someone believing that, by simply doing the same thing in a sweeter voice, you improve on the original. Jimi Hendrix knew this, at least on a sub-conscious level, when he turned All Along The Watchtower, a softly-spoken country ballad of prophetic reflection, into an urgent apocalyptic rocker that became the defining statement of psychadelia. Similarly The Dead Weather turned Dylan’s New Pony, a sexy blues about the torture of temptation, which is frequently criticized for chauvinistic qualities, into a raging rock song fronted by a woman who seemed to be torturing the men who provided the painful cries of ‘how much longer’. But more on that in another post. The thing to know is that if you want to do Dylan well, you usually have to do him differently, because I agree when people say nobody sings Dylan like Dylan.
What’s beautiful about the Stripes’ reworking of Coffee is how tired and defeated it sounds. While Dylan’s recoding seemed to focus on the image of the valley below, this version seems to emulate the feeling of that last cup of coffee. When you hear it you can almost picture Jack sitting at the counter of a Detroit diner at midnight asking the waitress for that one final pour. It’s haunting and mysterious but at the same time so unsensational. The cries of pain that Jack delivers each line with are as much as he’s ever put into a track but at the same time he sounds like he has so little left, a sad purposelessness coming through on the song. The guitar sounds similarly fragile, it’s rough clang matching each crack of the voice and the ghostly organ.
Maybe that’s simply my reaction and a far from objective analysis but it does prove something. With One More Cup Of Coffee, the White Stripes almost give a lesson in cover songs, how they can conjure up and convey things never present in the original, to dramatic effect. And when you apply this formula to Dylan, it’s a recipe for brilliance.