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Remembering Sufjan Steven’s mesmerising cover of The Beatles ‘What Goes On’

@SamWKemp

Sufjan Stevens is perhaps one of the most prolific and continually surprising singer-songwriters in America. His taste for sprawling albums connected by epic themes has seen him produce not one but two state-inspired albums (Illinois and Michigan), a collection of sacred songs inspired by The Bible and other religious texts (Seven Swans), an experimental electronic album based on the Chinese zodiac ( Enjoy Your Rabbit) and a poignant album exploring the death of his mother (Carrie and Lowell).

Sufjan Stevens has managed to craft a selection of albums that sound as though they come from a group of collaborators working under one name than they do a single man. It’s no wonder, then, that he was attracted to the transitory world of The Beatles. Indeed, growing up in a household of “eccentrics, hippies, spiritualists” in the 1970s, the group likely featured quite a lot in the musician’s early life. In 2020, he even honoured the influence of ‘The Fab Four’ with a cover of ‘What Goes On’ from their 1965 album Rubber Soul.

Stevens’ cover of ‘What Goes On is a testament to the strength of the sonic world he crafted with his 2005 album Illinois. That album, which features tracks such as ‘Chicago’ and ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’, ripples with an array of chimeric orchestral sounds. The musician bought that same leftfield chamber sound to his 2020 cover.

‘What Goes On’ opens with pastoral flair. Acoustic guitar, banjo, and flute parts are combined, conjuring up the lush sonic pastures of The Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ before slamming headfirst into a dirt-lined guitar riff. But before we’ve even had time to settle into this new wave of sound, Stevens brings us down to earth by cutting the drums and replacing them with shimmering sleigh bells. It’s the same fragmentary approach to songcraft that The Beatles would later refine with Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Peppers, but which, at the time of Rubber Soul, they hadn’t yet conceived of.

The Beatles’ original version of ‘What Goes On’ is, funnily enough, one of the least sonically adventurous songs on Rubber Soul. It’s actually an early song Lennon wrote for The Quarrymen. As such, it is suffused with the skiffle-come-rockabilly blues sound for which the pre-Beatles group became known.

As John Lennon once told David Sheff, ‘What Goes On’ was “resurrected with a middle eight thrown in, probably with Paul’s help, to give Ringo Starr a song and also to use the bits, because I never like to waste anything.” It also just so happens to be one of the earliest (and only) writing credits Ringo Starr recieved with The Beatles. Check out Sufjan Stevens’ infinitely playful cover of ‘What Goes on’ below.