In Across the Universe, the Beatles evoke thoughts of relaxation and meditation. The effect of both their lyrics and the music behind them is calming, though repetitive. Strumming just a few notes over and over, they chant, “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup,” and, just as the rain in their song is endless, so the strumming seems to be. Droning on, they sing, “Pools of sorrow waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind,” and as they do, they encourage the listener to let go and let similar emotions drift in and out of his open mind. Their singing is soft, much like the kind of caress they mention in their lyrics, and their words are immediately catchy – catchy enough to get stuck in the listener’s head for days – perhaps almost enough to possess him.
The Beatles continue to lull the listener into a dreamlike state as they sing, “Jai guru deva om,” once again evoking the idea of meditation and relaxation. As they sing this, their voices rise in a hymn-like chorus, making the listener’s experience almost religious. Then, they fall again into a chant, singing, “Nothing’s gonna change my world.” And to emphasize this idea of the unchanging nature of the universe, they play the same chord progression over and over repeatedly. As they transition to the next verse, singing, “Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes, they call me on and on across the universe,” they emphasize the unity of different people and images throughout the world. The music helps the listener to feel this universal connection, with its soft note changes and the simple strumming of acoustic guitars. The music helps the listener feel as if he is drifting through space – fading in and out as the Beatles sing, that their “thoughts meander like a restless wind” and “Stumble blindly as they make their way across the universe.”
Fiona Apple’s treatment of their song gives the listener a different experience. Whereas the original version makes the listener feel as if he is experiencing something religious or going through a process of meditation and enlightenment, Apple seems a little bored as she sings, “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cupf.” For her, watching the rain seems less meditative and more depressing. The listener feels as if she is moping as she watches rain falling around her. Her pouting is almost tangible.
Although her verses are duller than The Beatles’, however, her chorus is brighter. She seems to cheer up as she sings, “Nothing’s gonna change my world.” The background music, too, becomes brighter and more beautiful. There is something almost comforting about the way she sings it – as if she is comforting a child with a lullaby. There are some similarities between Apple’s version and the Beatles. Both sing “Jai guru deva” in a reverent way, evoking the idea of religious euphoria. And, indeed, Apple’s background music grows louder as she sings it and the harmony between her voice and the instruments behind her reminds the listener of something form the Baroque period. For the most part, however, Apple’s version reminds the listener more of 90s grunge than the Baroque. It celebrates disinterest more than religion and the boredom is apparent in Apple’s voice.
If Apple celebrates boredom, however, Rufus Wainwright combats it. From the beginning of his verse, he drones less than both Apple and the Beatles. When he sings of possession and of caressing, it is with passion in his voice. When he sings that nothing is going to change his world, he sings it as a challenge, rather than as an observation. His version does not evoke feelings of a religious experience. It is more of a ballad. His tempo is faster than that of the others. The listener feels – not that he is just drifting through the universe – but that he is marching confidential though it. His emotions vary more than either Apple’s or the Beatles’. They range from boldness as he defies change, sadness as he sings about waves of sorrow and happy confidence as he sings about images of light calling him across the universe. Whereas Apple’s version and the Beatles’ version include a great deal of droning and make the listener want to fall into a meditative state or sleep, Wainwright makes the listener want to sing along with him.
Just as his emotions change as he sings, so too do his inflections and tone. He is expressive in a way the others are not. Even when he sings the same verse repeatedly, he changes keys as he does it, keeping the listener from being lulled to sleep. When he sings “Jai guru deva,” it often lacks the “om” and it seems almost like a battle cry. There are some similarities in his version and the others. In many places, the notes he hits make the listener feel a sense of sadness, which is also true of the singing in Apple’s version and the Beatle’s version. This is particularly true in the section in which the singers sing, “Thoughts meander like a restless wind – inside a letter box – they stumble blindly as they make their way – across the universe.” Here, in each version, the singers hit a minor chord that makes the listener feel a deep sense of sadness. The lyrics, too, speak of loss and these two factors together leave the listener feeling a little sorrowful. Yet Wainwright quickly lifts his listener’s mood with his fast-paced strumming, while the other singers remain listless in a way that leaves listeners feeling a little lonely.