Terrible Thrills Vol. 2 is a cover album of Bleachers’ Strange Desire with various iconic female voices including Sara Bareilles, Carly Ray Jepsen, and Sia leading each song.
Bleachers’ Strange Desire is one of my favorite albums of the past five years. Released in 2014, songs like “Rollercoaster” and “You’re Still a Mystery” burst with invigorating synth pop energy. Others like “Wake Me” and “Like a River Runs” play to my hopeless romantic sensibilities. The album is nearly perfect to me. I cannot think of a single thing I would change about it—except for maybe Yoko Ono. That can be assumed, though. I mean, it’s Yoko Ono; I do not think it is a controversial opinion to say she should not be making music.
But I digress. When Terrible Thrills Vol. 2 was suddenly released on September 25, I was certainly curious; front man Jack Antonoff explained he actually writes many of his songs with female vocalists in mind, and this cover album fulfilled that idea. As an occasional songwriter myself, I thought this could then be an intriguing look into the creative process. At the same time, I was skeptical. Strange Desire already feels raw and uncompromising in its originality. To think there was an arguably purer version of each of these songs floating around in Antonoff’s head seemed impossible, but I took a listen.
What I found felt much less consistent and genuine compared to Strange Desire. Still, there are a few standout performances on Terrible Thrills Vol. 2 that add a new dimension to the music.
The album starts off innocently enough with Sara Bareilles performing a more atmospheric version of “Wild Heart.” New clockwork drum beats contrast well with Bareilles and her piano. It does not feel quite as seamless or sincere as the original, but it is respectable.
Then “Rollercoaster” begins. The only thing that is effectively changed in this tune is the vocals, but that was enough to make the once charming yet spirited song borderline unlistenable. Charli XCX does her best to sound like she just woke up by singing nasally through a dozen vocal filters, and she seems entirely disconnected from the message and tone. To see such a masterful pop tune reduced to empty nonsense in one fell swoop is nauseating, and it nearly discouraged me from listening to the rest of the album.
I trudged on, and, thankfully, the album never again reaches a low as deep as Charli XCX’s “Rollercoaster,” but many of the remaining songs are admittedly rather middling. Carly Rae Jepsen brings spunkiness to “Shadow,” but there are bass throbs and needless drops to make it more dance-friendly, ultimately to its own detriment. “Wake Me” with Lucius now sounds, fascinatingly, like something out of a western, but this feels gimmicky in the end, especially since the original was so stripped down and sensual.
Arising from the mediocrity are Elle King and Sia.
King covers “Reckless Love” with a confident and distinctly feminine ferocity, something Antonoff could not have pulled off if he tried. She feels submerged in and absorbed by the song and, in turn, places this version right on par with the original.
Sia’s cover of “Like a River Runs” is easily the strongest performance on the album. Upon hearing it for the first time, I was shaken to the core. The song is now composed of her yearning vocals with a haunting piano and orchestra for the instrumentals. It reveals just how dark the original tune is. Sia’s delivery of the lines “I woke up thinking you were still here / My hands shaking with regret / I’ve held this dream for such a long, long time / And I wanna get up” made me stop what I was doing, just sitting and listening, letting the song just take control. This is the one moment that the Terrible Thrills Vol. 2 cover may have slightly surpassed the Strange Desire original.
I wish I could look at this album more objectively, without constantly comparing it back to Strange Desire, but when something so fun, so relatable, so charismatic, so empowering is explicitly altered, one cannot help but be cynical and wonder if it was ever necessary. For me, Terrible Thrills Vol. 2 offers a largely lesser version of a modern tour de force, but I still encourage all to give it a listen and maybe find something personally compelling in the differences.