I stopped at a tea shop to pick up some drinks, and the song that was playing on the radio seemed a little familiar. I thought, “Hey, I think I’ve heard this song before. I know how the chorus goes, anyway.” I kept waiting for the chorus to kick in, but it never did — it turned out to be a different song altogether, but one with virtually the same melody. I was mildly disappointed.
When I arrived home, I got on Google to find out what the two songs were — the one whose chorus I had been anticipating, and the one they were actually playing. Finding the two songs and watching their respective music videos in succession turned out to be a very depressing experience.
Here’s the original of the tune I recognized: Dobie Gray’s 1973 hit “Drift Away” (written by Paul Williams’s brother Mentor).
And here’s the song that made me think of it: Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” from 1998.
Now “Drift Away” is hardly one of the great songs of all time, and “Drops of Jupiter” is very far from being the worst thing on the radio in recent decades — but still the contrast between the two, and the qualitative inferiority of the latter, is palpable. The melody is the same, but something essential has been lost — something which, though hard to define or explain, is trivially easy to name — soul. Soul, almost in the metaphysical sense. Simply put, when I watch Dobie Gray sing, it’s easy to entertain the idea that he is an immortal being, that he hath had elsewhere his setting and cometh from afar; watching Patrick Monahan, I wear my atheism much more comfortably. That seems like a horrible thing to say, and I certainly mean no disrespect to Mr. Monahan, but the impression is undeniable.
So what happened? What accounts for the difference between these two very similar songs, released only 25 years apart, and what accounts for the fact that — to say nothing of Bach and Mozart, or even of such lesser lights as Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan — today’s music scene can produce no one who rises even to the level of a Dobie Gray?