For this edition of Cover Friday, I’d like to offer for your enjoyment “Duchess,” originally done by Scott Walker in 1969 but covered here by Neko Case, from her 1997 debut album, The Virginian. It’s one of my favorite Neko Case performances, and somehow I feel guilty saying that because she has so many great originals. But I suppose I shouldn’t feel too bad, since it’s a great track, and a performance is a performance, original or not.
I heard Case’s version before Walker’s, so I’m inclined to prefer the cover — but as objectively as I can imagine myself to be, I think I would have liked it more even if I’d heard the original first. Scott Walker is one of popular music’s (and I use that term loosely, as he definitely has more of a cult following than a popular one) more mysterious figures, emerging as a solo artist in the late ’60s following the breakup of his previous group, The Walker Brothers, who were quite big in the U.K. (they had only a couple of minor hits in the U.S.: “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” and “Make It Easy on Yourself”). Walker’s limited chart success as a solo artist has been exclusively in the U.K., never making an impact in the U.S., probably due to his very theatrical style. Despite his lack of chart success, the reclusive Walker has nonetheless been quite influential — his singing style has influenced the likes of David Bowie and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.
Neko Case took Walker’s great “Duchess” (an excellent album track, but not one of his hits) and punched up the energy level by a few degrees with her spectacular voice. Her cover has a slightly faster tempo, but similar instrumentation, although where Walker had strings as accompaniment, Case has the swell of an organ, which lends an earthier feel to the proceedings. Where Walker is somewhat detached, Case is more emotive, leading one to suspect that Walker’s feelings for Duchess, whoever she may be, are somewhat offhand, while Case cares more genuinely about her. Interestingly, Case sings from the same perspective, not attempting to change it to a male character; then again, “Duke” wouldn’t have worked very well in the lyrics as a replacement. So whereas Walker’s version is a love song to an older woman, Case comes across as singing more out of admiration for this woman, tinged with a sense of sadness. It’s a majestic cover that exceeds the impact of the original, one of those rare cases where the covering artist has discovered something in the song that the original artist didn’t even know was there.
To observe the evidence for yourself and come to your own conclusions, here is Scott Walker’s original.