“Across the Universe“, written by John Lennon, was originally released in 1969. The more I listen to it the more beautiful it becomes to me. It’s very positive and uplifting. It puts me in a peaceful frame of mind, and subtly expresses the idea that our thoughts float out into the universe and we become in tune with each other. It seems like such a simple song, but it’s incredibly profound and enlightening.
The “best version” (as touted by the YouTube poster legendofbirdbridge) begins with what sounds like a nature documentary (or Hitchcock’s The Birds). I believe this was done in connection with a World Wildlife Fund charity album. After the avian influx John’s voice comes in all swirling and psychedelic. It’s almost like you’re falling into a meditative state. And maybe that was the intent.
The “rare version” (uploaded by rizlatune) is much simpler, more beautiful and effective. It does have a little bit of a symphonic background to it, but it’s not overwhelming.
When I saw this next version listed in my YouTube search results, I got really interested to hear it. I mean, how could I not? David Bowie and John Lennon doing the song live? Just the idea of it is pretty awesome, right? But, turns out, this is some sort of “fake-out” or really an impersonation of both artists. It’s listed on a YouTube channel under “Mersey Boys“, in association with British comedian Stevie Riks. He does a bunch of other “interesting” musical impersonations/homages, as well.
At first I was like wtf is this? It’s really cheesy and a little trippy (granted the song itself is kind of trippy. Or maybe it’s just the background in the video). But the singer/impressionist is pretty dead on with the sound and persona of both artists. Although his Bowie does remind me a bit of a Tom Baker acid trip version of Doctor Who.
The British group 10cc does a live version that’s pretty faithful to the original, if more stripped down. It’s done simply, with no overblown orchestration and it’s very soothing and quite lovely.
On the album Abbey Road: A Tribute to The Beatles, the song is performed by Jackson Browne and Robbie Krieger. This one’s a little painful to slog through; it just doesn’t work for me. The addition of the choir around the 2:32 is too much. There’s so much going on that it detracts. And distracts. Sometimes in paying tribute you screw up the beauty of the pure song and this kind of does that for me.
The bell/chime/whatever-it-is that opens the Cyndi Lauper cover is jarring to my ears. This is another example of throwing in too much stuff. As I noted above the song is a bit trippy on its own but adding in a bunch of airy, new age, hippy dippy, crunchy granola, ethereal-sounding elements devalues it, taking the focus away from the simple, profound beauty of song. It’s interesting, though, that the closing section (around the 4:06 mark) is reminiscent of the out of this world ending music on The Beatles’ A Day in the Life.
Now, having said what I did about a lot of stuff being thrown into a cover, the fact that there’s a lot going on in David Bowie’s rendition does not make me hate it. In fact I think this is fantastically executed. Even though it’s much less meditative, what he’s done in no way overshadows the song; it only enhances it.
Fiona Apple is a very intense, thoughtful, passionate artist. I think she’s a really good fit for this song. Her voice is sweet and airy, very light, yet strongly focused and effortlessly serene in her interpretation. As in the video, her voice is an island of calm response to the chaos that can sometimes surround us all.
Another beautiful interpretation is brought to us by Rufus Wainwright. Again, not sparse, but nothing overly produced. What he does comes in service of the song, not a drive to be clever or a showy sense of ego.
The German rock band Scorpions bring us a guitar-laden cover that’s very earnest and sincere. Their version feels almost like a lullaby. It’s nice.
In the Julie Taymor-directed musical Across the Universe, the main character, played by actor Jim Sturgess, begins “Across the Universe” and gradually ends up in the middle of piece that focuses on the riotous song “Helter Skelter“. The visuals in this section (in the whole film, really) are just stunning.