This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #104: Across the Universe by The Beatles (covered by Aurora, too).
One of the greatest pleasures that I am deriving from doing this countdown is getting the opportunity to do a deeper dive into some of the music of groups that I have always loved but never really explored in depth before. This includes finding songs like, “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” by The Rolling Stones the other day and now, finding “Across the Universe” by The Beatles. I believe that this is truly their loveliest song. It is like a lullaby for adults. It was written by John Lennon and it reads like poetry set to music; all delicate and whispery and unlike almost anything else in their vast catalogue of brilliant music. The funny thing about this….at least for me….is that I came across this song by accident. I wasn’t listening to Beatles music when I discovered it. Instead, I found it by way of a YouTube algorithm which suggested one of those, “If you like Song “A” then, you might like this song, too”-type of suggestions that pop up all of the time. The song they suggested was a cover of “Across the Universe” by Norwegian pixie, Aurora. Her version is really ethereal and, from what I have learned about the song from Lennon, himself, I believe that she has recorded the definitive version of this song. In any case, Aurora’s cover led me to John Lennon and then, to the story of “Across the Universe”, which I shall share with you now.
As you may know from our posts on The Beatles, most of their songs were written by Paul McCartney or John Lennon. In the beginning, the two lads would often sit and write together. But, as time went on, they began to write separately. When it came to this, the process would be that they would write alone at home and then, return the next day and present their song choice to the rest of the band who, at that point, would accept or reject the song. If accepted, the band would workshop the song until they felt it was ready to be recorded. In the process of recording the song, the magic would happen and these songs would be fleshed out into the wondrous final form that most of their songs ended up taking. Unfortunately, when The Beatles assembled to work on songs for the “Let It Be” album (which ended up being the final time their recorded together, as the songs for their final album, “Abbey Road” were cobbled together from the “Let It Be” sessions), the writing process was beginning to break down for the band. John was pulling away from the group. He was showing up later and later in the day to work on the album. In the void that John’s absence formed, Paul McCartney began taking more control of the sessions. This meant that his songs got more practise time given to them and, as a result, they became more polished and album-ready. With the rest of the band becoming fatigued from working so much on Paul’s songs, they had little energy to give any songs by John their due. One of the songs that John felt got short changed was, “Across the Universe”.
As lovely and quaint as “Across the Universe” is, it is really a song that was born out of sadness and loss. John wrote the song as his marriage to his first wife, Cynthia, was ending. The story is that they were arguing one night at bed time and John was tired of the sound of her voice so he tried tuning her words out as she spoke. However, instead of reacting with anger, as many spouses do when a marriage is ending, John turned to the lessons he had learned from his experiences in India with Transcendental Meditation so, he turned his thoughts toward peacefulness and harmony. As a result, his feelings toward his ex-wife’s voice manifested itself in the form of a poem which ended up forming the lyrics to “All Across the Universe”. John is quoted as claiming that “Across the Universe” is the finest song he has ever written (and, when you hear/read the lyrics, you will agree that they are very different from much of what Lennon wrote throughout his tenure with The Beatles).
So, John Lennon brought his new song to the band to be workshopped for “Let It Be”, only to find the band engrossed in Paul’s songs, instead. “Across the Universe” was only ever given cursory treatment by the band and, in the end, the song was given to the World Wildlife Federation (the original WWF of the world) for use in a charity album they were putting together. That version ended up having bird chirps added to it. The version of the song that The Beatles used always dissatisfied Lennon. He claimed it was symbolic of all that was going wrong with the band and he blamed Paul McCartney for sabotaging his song. In the end, after The Beatles broke up, Lennon asked the infamous producer, Phil Spector to work on the song. Spector added a symphony and a backing choir, which pleased Lennon. “Across the Universe” ended up being added on to the “Abbey Road” album but never turned out to be the song John Lennon had hoped it would be for the band.
In the decades that have followed the breaking up of The Beatles, many artists and bands have covered their songs. Thus, there is a whole category of music you can search for on the Internet that will organize these covers all into one place for easy access. For me, as I mentioned earlier, it was YouTube that brought me to this song because of their recommendation to try the cover of “Across the Universe” by Norwegian singer, Aurora. So, I listened to it out of curiosity and I am glad that I did. For my money, her version of the song must have been what John Lennon heard in his head when he first thought of those lyrics. Aurora has a soft, almost child-like voice. She reminds me of Bjork, in a way. She was born in Norway and grew up near a fjord that, she states, caused her to believe she was growing up as a child in Narnia. She has been singing professionally since she was sixteen, when she had a hit called “Runaway“. I thought she was Irish when I first heard her accent but, she is Norwegian (and a lovely, talented, eclectic soul, as you will soon see). Her version of “Across the Universe” is crisply sung; the notes seem to hang in the frosty air like ice crystals. I could almost hear the peaceful vibe Lennon was searching for, coming through in the softness of her song styling. In any case, I believe that her softer touch is more appropriate for the song than is John Lennon’s raspier voice singing those same words. As Dylan felt with Hendrix and “All Along the Watch Tower” and as Pete Seeger felt about The Byrds with “Turn, Turn, Turn”, sometimes, the cover becomes the definitive take on a song that was already good on its own. Is that the case with Aurora’s cover? I will leave that up to you to decide. You know that, for me, it is the best version, according to my tastes.
For now, let’s have ourselves a listen to a song that stands out as being more poetic than most when it comes to The Beatles catalogue. Here is John Lennon and the lyric version of “Across the Universe”, followed by Aurora, with her cover. Enjoy them both.
The link to the video for the song, “All Across the Universe” by The Beatles, can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Beatles, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “All Across the Universe”, as covered by Aurora, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Aurora, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for supporting musical Titans, such as The Beatles while, at the same time, promoting rising stars such as Aurora. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.