This is the 37th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Anne Preven and Scott Cutler met in New York when Cutler was visiting from the west coast. They began collaborating on a song, and when Preven relocated to Los Angeles, a songwriting partnership was born.
In 1991, Preven and Cutler recorded some demoes with former Cure producer and former Johnny Hates Jazz singer Phil Thornalley. One of those songs was “Torn,” in which a depressed narrator sang of a failed relationship:
I’m all out of faith
This is how I feel
I’m cold and I am shamed, lying naked on the floor
Illusion never changed
Into something real
I’m wide awake and I can see the perfect sky is torn
You’re a little late
I’m already torn
Preven and Cutler eventually recorded the song, but the song was first recorded by Danish singer Lis Sørensen as “Braendt,” which translates to “burned.” Appearing on Sørensen’s 1993 album “Under Stjernerne Et Sted,” “Braendt” was sung entirely in Danish and with a poppy arrangement that belied the song’s dark lyrics.
Around this same time, Preven and Cutler formed a band called Ednaswap. The band released a self-titled album in 1995, but the album was never put into wide release. This album, though, included a version of “Torn” that was louder and angstier than Sørensen’s “Braendt.” Ednaswap ended up recording a handful of versions, and Thornalley later called them all “really kind of dirgy.”
Norwegian singer Trine Rein covered “Torn” in English for her 1996 album, “Beneath My Skin.” Her version connected the two previous incarnations, as it was a little more polished than the one Ednaswap, but not as poppy as Sørensen’s “Braendt.”
Ednaswap’s 1997 sophomore album “Wacko Magneto” included a slowed-down “Torn,” the first two minutes of which were just Preven singing over distorted guitar. But after two minutes, drums and more guitar kicked in, sounding just as unpolished as Preven’s raspy vocals.
We’ve previously discussed songwriters recording songs they wrote after other people recorded them. In those posts, I have tended to say that a version of a song performed by whomever wrote it can’t be considered a cover. It’s squishy here, though, because “Torn” predated Ednaswap, with the connecting thread, of course, being Preven and Cutler. But can it be the “original” version, if Sørensen already recorded it? And how do we define “Braendt” in relationship to “Torn”? If it’s the first recording, does that make it the original? Or can Ednaswap’s version be the original “Torn” because that’s the version that’s actually called “Torn”?
In the instance of “Torn,” we’ll say that if the versions of “Our Lips Are Sealed” by The Go-Go’s and Fun Boy Three aren’t covers, then Ednaswap’s versions of “Torn” aren’t covers either.
In 1997, former Australian soap opera actress Natalie Imbruglia released a cover of “Torn” for her debut album, “Left of the Middle.” Many of the songs on the album had been written by “Torn” co-writer Thornalley after his publisher had introduced him to Imbruglia and suggested the two record a version of “Torn.”
Imbruglia’s version of “Torn” hit Number One on singles charts in Belgium, Denmark, Canada, Spain and Sweden, and reached the top ten in more than a dozen other countries. During the time “Torn” was popular in the US, the rules of the Billboard Hot 100 changed. Previously, songs that didn’t have a physical single could not chart, but in 1998, the rules changed such that airplay-only songs could make it onto Billboard’s charts. But by that time, “Torn” was waning in popularity and thus only peaked at Number 42, belying how popular (and ubiquitous!) it was in the US. Because of “Torn,” “Left of the Middle” sold more than six million copies worldwide, earning platinum certification in the UK and double platinum in the US.
It was the most polished cover to date, rounding out the edges in the already smooth versions by Sørensen and Rein. Imbruglia’s softer voice and added repetition of the word “torn” might be the biggest distinction between her version and Rein’s. Besides, ya know, that Imbruglia’s became a defining song of its year, if not decade.
German band Schandfleck recorded a fast punk cover of “Torn for 2001’s “Punk Chartbusters: Vol. 4,” a compilation that included other bands covering a range of artists from Madonna to The Rolling Stones. Schandfleck’s version, sung in English, keeps the same gender pronouns as heard in the previous versions, giving this version a gay undertone.
The following year, San Diego pop-punk revival band Off By One released a cover of “Torn” on its self-titled album. The riffs were fast and catchy, making it a poppier version than the one by Schandfleck. But like many of fast pop-punk covers we’ve reviewed, this one felt like it was applying the pop-punk formula to the song rather than attempting to inject anything new into the song. What this version did do, though, was change the gender of the subject from male to female.
Brazilian girl band Rouge released a Portugese-language version of “Torn” called “O Amor É Ilusão” for the group’s fourth and last album, 2005’s “Mil E Uma Noites.” It sounded like pretty similar to Imbruglia’s version, just in Portugese, which was fitting, as Imbruglia’s sounded pretty much like Sørensen’s “Braendt,” except in English, not Danish.
Before she had an international hit with “Call Me Maybe,” singer Carly Rae Jepsen was a contestant on the fifth season of “Canadian Idol” in the summer of 2007. She performed “Torn” twice during her stint on the show: once, when she was in the Top 8…
And again, a little closer to her elimination. Both performances were brief, as is the case on these singing shows, but they were enough to hint at the strong voice that we would get to hear five years later. It’s easy to imagine Jepsen recording her own updated version. (Please?)
Boy band One Direction performed the song when its members were contestants on “The X Factor” in 2010. Backed only by an acoustic guitar, the group sang a soft version that judge Simon Cowell called “a little bit timid.”
After the group achieved some fame and success, its members performed the song again, this time in the BBC Radio 1 LIve Lounge. The timidity that Cowell noted in the previous version was gone, as the group’s members were by this time more seasoned and used to live performances. The 2010 performance was mainly shared by two of the members, whereas this BBC version felt like more of a group effort.
On an episode of the brilliant and underrated “Happy Endings,” Penny (played by Casey Wilson) and her mother (played by Megan Mullally) performed “Torn” in matching outfits at a boat show. This will be your favorite version, so every version you listen to after this is just for research purposes.
English singer-songwriter Hannah Trigwell and American musician Alex Goot, both of whom came to prominence through their YouTube channels, released a duet version of “Torn” in 2013 with Trigwell on guitar and Goot on piano. The two took turns singing the vocals, but they sang the chorus together. In this version, one can assume they are singing to each other, each one having hurt the other. But one can also assume they are each singing to separate people and are singing together, rather than to each other.
Australian band Hands Like Houses recorded a version of “Torn” for the 2014 compilation “Punk Goes 90’s: Vol. 2.” It wasn’t all that “punk,” though, as it was not sped up at all (it was about as fast as Imbruglia’s version). It sounded like a slightly more rock version of Imbruglia’s, albeit sung by a man. It sounded like it could just as easily have come out in 1998 as 2014.
At a live show in 2014, Tori Amos performed a mashup cover of “Torn” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” The instrumental part is hard to hear in the recording, but Amos’ vocals are piercingly sharp. She spent most of the mashup on “Human Nature,” but she could have easily played each one for 10 minutes and it still would have been pretty.
British singer-songwriter James Taylor-Watts, who performs under the stage name James TW, released a cover of “Torn” as a bonus track on his 2016 EP, “First Impressions.” With a snappy, clappy backbeat, this version jettisoned the acoustic guitar that appeared in many of the covers and instead included a funky backing track that had me swaying in my chair.
In the nearly 20 years since Imbruglia’s version was released, no other artist has had the same success she did. Nor has she recreated the success she had with that song. She has come to terms with that, and with the fact that she will forever be associated with that song. In a 2015 interview, she said:
“I made a promise to myself I wasn’t going to ever get bitter about that song. I knew I’d be singing it forever so I’d have to stay friends with it forever. And I have! The song has only bought joy and happiness to my life, and allowed me to be very generous to my family. It changed my life, so it’s important that I always feel good about it…
…If you’re performing it live and you secretly hate it, I think people can always tell. I know I hate it when I go to a concert and the artist doesn’t play the songs I love. It’s about the fans at the end of the day, isn’t it?”
In an interview with Songfacts, Thornalley hypothesized why Imbruglia’s version was one to become successful rather than any of the previous versions:
“Sometimes you have to wait for all the elements to come together. Obviously, she was a pop star and had a background as an actor so she looked the part. She knew how to make a great video and the quality to her voice seemed to suit the song because the song is quite anxious, and yet her voice is quite sweet. So, I think that made it an attractive union of emotions…
[The album] had been made in London by RCA, which was part of BMG then, and they took it to the American record label – and everybody passed on the record. Everybody in the US said, ‘No thanks.’ And then, of course, it became a massive hit here in the UK, and the very same A&R man who had said ‘I don’t want it’ in New York was now trying to get his name put on the album to say that he was the executive responsible for it. That’s the music business. That’s quite cynical but it’s true. That’s how it works.”
For their part, Preven and Cutler were happy for the success, though a little overwhelmed. At the height of the song’s popularity, Preven recalled hearing kids sing “Torn” at the beach and had to get out of the water to get away from the song. In a 1998 interview, Preven seemed peeved that Imbruglia had yet to call her or Cutler to thank them. The pair seemed more excited about the prospect of Ednaswap hitting it big — “We don’t really write for other people” — than the idea of being known for someone else’s success. But Ednaswap never took off, as the band broke up by the end of the ’90s.
A good number of the songs we’ve reviewed have similar stories. Robert Hazard’s obituary was international news not because of his own recordings, but because he wrote “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” Gloria Jones recorded “Tainted Love” twice and never got to have even half of the success that Soft Cell had with the song. Curtiss Maldoon’s “Sepheryn” was the backbone for Madonna’s “Ray Of Light” and yet very few people could tell you anything about the duo.
But Preven and Cutler had it better than most songwriters, as they made a lot of money off the song and have since created a successful music services company, Pulse. That’s certainly a better deal than Clive Maldoon got, as he died in 1976, way before Madonna’s career even began.