I have as you might have noticed a kind of default setting for cover versions, amounting to “you can’t keep a good tune down”. Certain approaches are almost guaranteed to ruin tracks – think “advert pianos” – but in general pop songs are resilient little bastards, able to withstand much greed and deformation. So hearing The Troggs’ “Love Is All Around” for the first time, after years of weathering this other version, was a bit of a shock. Here was a song – a very lovely, surprisingly artless song – that it seemed really had been ruined by the pawings of commerce. Not that Reg Presley saw it that way, and why should he? If memory serves he objected loudly and publically to the eventual decision to withdraw this “Love Is All Around” lest it be number one for ever.
As it was, fifteen weeks seemed quite ever enough. So with the knowledge of the original to make Wet Wet Wet even worse, what exactly goes wrong here? I think the clues are all in the first few seconds. Instead of the heartbeat rhythm of the Troggs, you get a fanfare for string beds and guitar. It’s actually an uncanny glimpse at the gross future of British rock, late 90s edition, with its lazy, gluttonous guitars and its grievous addiction to string arrangements. But what makes it so unpleasant on “Love Is All Around” is that it sets a tone which the record never strays from: one of triumph.
Here’s a vast generalisation: most good love songs aren’t triumphant. They’re doubting, hoping, fearing, bittersweet somehow – even the most unabashed and delighted have a kind of humility to them, and actually the original “Love Is All Around” is a great example of that. There’s nothing of this in Wet Wet Wet’s reading – Pellow acts the lover as winner, all his ad libs and showy additions meant to point us to the fact that he’s got his girl, his happy ending, his full stop. Curtain up, show’s over.
Obviously this is something a soundtrack single can get away with to some extent. Its emotions don’t have to be earned – they can be outsourced, and a recording as bumptious as “Love Is All Around” can work because it’s a payoff for the film’s narrative. But soundtrack singles should also stand on their own – and stripped of context Wet Wet Wet’s “Love Is All Around” feels overblown and empty. When Presley sings that love is all around, he sounds humbled by his sincere discovery of one of the universe’s great principles. When Pellow sings it, he sounds like he means it more tangibly – love is something he’s being showered in, like applause or champagne or confetti or maybe just money.