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Bobby Darin, “Sail Away” (1972)
from Darin 1936–1973
Motown M5 813V1

It takes serious stones to cover “Sail Away.” The song is such an ethically, aesthetically, morally, emotionally fragile creation, the slightest miscue can send it off into severely unintended territory.

It takes something beyond serious stones for a white man to cover “Sail Away” with a gospel choir. On Motown.

Yes, Bobby Darin is what we might call a fearless interpreter of song. He’s the type of artist who makes taste seem like some sort of effete ornament, something as obscure and outdated as the code of chivalry. What is taste—or even conveying an understanding of a lyric—when compared to the sheer force of his personality? (In this, he anticipates much subsequent popular culture.)

And thank God for him, for Darin’s indiscriminate—well, let’s be kind and say inclusive—approach to material does produce some rare gems. “Mack the Knife” was only the beginning of his left-field exploration of the canon. His “Nature Boy” has nothing to do with nature or boys or poignant spiritual messages; it’s louche backing suggests instead the title character might be a pot dealer on Sunset Boulevard. And yet … Darin’s steamrollering of the song causes one to question the sincerity of the lyric and the whole backstory of its author, proto-hippie eden ahbez. That’s a neat trick of unintended textual criticism. (And you can dance to it.)

Just as you begin to think that the pleasures of Darin are of purely a kitsch variety, out pops a version of Jagger and Richards‘s “Back Street Girl” that blows away the original. Seriously. It’s more knowing, sadder, and the accordion is a perfect touch.

Bobby Darin is one of the singers that taught me to keep digging to the bottom of the crate. You never know what you’ll find. Is that version of “While We’re Young” by Mike Douglass a hidden gem? (No!) Is that Jimmie Lunceford album worth checking out? (Yes! Yes! Yes!) Is there anything redeeming on that Olivia Newtown John disc? (We’ll see….)

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