There’s a personal, intimate quality to Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” that few songs of recent years have been able to match. It’s partly the striking simplicity of the message—love can’t be forced in a relationship, no matter how much one person might wish it so—and partly the understatedness of the arrangement, a soft, tender ballad without a big swell or obnoxious diva vocal moments, but just Bruce Hornsby’s rain-against-the-windowpane piano plucking and some gentle drum-brushing. It’s an absolutely classic love song, and one so musically transmutable and universally relateable that it seems to be inviting new artists to come and try it, to put their own spin on it.
“I Can’t Make You Love Me” has been covered countless times since its release in 1991—by international pop stars like George Michael and Peter Andre, by American Idol contestants like Kimberly Locke and Carrie Underwood, and by dozens of other artists. But recently, the song has come back into the spotlight thanks to renditions by two of the great success stories of 2011 thusfar—indie-folk group Bon Iver, whose Bon Iver, Bon Iver has been among the year’s most critically acclaimed albums (and netted an unexpected 100,000 in sales in its first week), and musical darling of the world Adele, whose 21 and “Rolling in the Deep” have been the year’s most successful album and single on both sides of the Atlantic.
Bon Iver’s version came first, originally as part of a live medley performed on Jimmy Fallon in late May, and then on its own in a solo performance in studio about a month later, by group mastermind and most official member Justin Vernon. For his version, Vernon plays both Raitt and Hornsby, singing the song in his trademark quasi-falsetto while also playing the song’s gorgeous piano part on his grand. Vernon also tacks on a minute of Raitt’s “Nick of Time” (“I found love, darling / Love in the nick of time’) at the end of his performance, which while a fluid musical transition from “Can’t Make,” does represent a weird undercutting of the song’s central lyrical theme.
Still, it’s an incredibly pretty and heartfelt rendition, one which YouTube user nicoleyyy222 calls “the most beautiful piece of music i have heard.” (1957thack counters that he “sounds like he got his dick caught in the door,” which is also not totally inaccurate.)
Meanwhile, Adele debuted her version last night at the iTunes Festival in London. Like Bon Iver, Adele strips everything away but the vocals and piano, though unlike Vernon, she’s not pulling double-duty, letting a bandmate cover the ivory-tickling. The song is obviously a 360-degree slam-dunk of a cover choice for Adele, an artist whose experience with heartbreak has been the inspiration behind every success she’s had. Her “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is fairly faithful to the original, a restrained, low-key performance that lets the song’s melody and content carry its emotion, but still obviously carries great personal feeling and meaning. (We prefer it to her slightly draggy cover of The Cure’s “Love Song,” certainly.)
So which version of Raitt’s future-standard do you prefer? If we had to choose, we’d probably take Bon Iver’s, just because his voice alone puts such a different spin on it, though the Idol judges would have almost certainly prefered Adele’s performance. Feel free to cast your vote below, and take a listen to the original while you’re at it.