By now most music lovers have heard a portion of Willie Nelson’s acoustic cover of “The Scientist” by Coldplay. The cover was featured in a stop-motion advertisement by Chipotle called “Back to the Start.”
In the advertisement, an individual farmer falls into the trap of factory farming and then realizes the mistake in his ways and goes back to open healthy farming. It is a wonderful advertisement, beautiful in its sincerity and simplicity, and effective in its message. It is somber and uplifting. I think it is one of the best advertisements one can ever see. One of the reasons the commercial is so successful is Willie Nelson’s passionate cover of “The Scientist.”
Of course, also, it has sparked the questions of whether Willie Nelson’s version is better than the original. Nelson was 78 years old when he recorded the song. That’s 7 years from now. Even Coldplay fans are bowing to the veteran country crooner saying that his version is superior. I don’t think it is possible to say which version is better. Despite Nelson’s version is a cover, the two songs couldn’t be more different.
The Original Version
Coldplay lead man Chris Martin recorded “The Scientist” after a late-night rendezvous with an out-of-tune piano in Liverpool. He just happened upon the chords and thought they sounded lovely. He actually wanted to work on the George Harrison song “Isn’t it a Pity,” but found “The Scientist” instead. After being released as the second single from A Rush of Blood to the Head in 2002, the four-chord melody took off and today is one of Coldplay’s most beloved songs. Coldplay’s version is almost certainly about a failed relationship and a plea to try again.
Willie Nelson’s Rendition
Willie Nelson’s version, though, recorded in 2011 for the Chipotle commercial, takes on a completely different feel. Nelson has been a widely renowned critic of overly mechanized farming and the poor treatment of farm animals and independent farmers. The song, in this sense, seems to be a plea to tear down our modern farming constructs and work ourselves back to healthy food and family farming. It is a plea for health, and, in that way, may even make the lyrics (while it doesn’t fit perfectly) stronger.
Nelson’s version is more rural and pastoral. It sounds like it can be played on a porch while looking out on an open plain. Instead of a piano, Nelson favors a tuned-down acoustic guitar, picked delicately, with a haunting electric providing a passionate whine. The drums begin in the second verse and I like the addition. The sound remains soft, but full, with many tasteful elements.
The kicker in this song is Willie Nelson’s voice. There is no denying that Chris Martin has a wonderful voice, but Nelson’s worn croon is, itself, an American icon. His voice is stitched into the tapestry of America’s music tradition with musicians like Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly. At 78 years old, his voice painted with such tenderness and verisimilitude.