Is it excessive to write 500 words about a cover of a One Direction song? Maybe, but since I have a friend who had to be physically restrained from buying a life size cutout of the blonde guy from the group, I think this is subdued by the standards of the fan fiction era. Besides, I’m not actually here for the once-ubiquitous British boy band—their positive contribution to my musical landscape is solely thanks to indie goddess Mitski’s recent cover of their 2014 “Fireproof,” and that is why I’m here.
The original “Fireproof” opens with a cute acoustic guitar riff that remains on loop as the classic boyband beat kicks in perkily. Cue members of the band, who take turns on lead vocals while remaining members “oh” and “ah” barbershop-quartet style. The cymbals shimmer quietly alongside the slippery-smooth harmonies that insulate the chorus and the song plateaus, carrying on like this for another two minutes. There is no climax, no explosion, no bang, no whimper: One Direction’s “Fireproof” is a sticky, pleasant song loyal to its name—entirely incapable of igniting a spark.
Mitski’s cover begins with a low electric guitar rapidly and monotonously pulsing in play with a steady bass drum. It’s a dark-and-gritty foundation for the song, which has traded in its beachy pastel origins for a dystopian ember-red. New layers of the rhythm section erratically punctuate the first verse before piercing distortion catalyzes the chorus in an unbelievably satisfying release of instrumental tension. Mitski’s vocals are untouchable, maintaining a clarity in the grains of her lower register but emanating an unconventional strength in her lilting highs. A tidal wave of optimism, urgency, and lingering sadness is behind her voice in newly powerful lines like “Riding on the wind and I won’t give up.” It’s an invigorating and beautiful tragedy that Mitski paints with her vocals, and it’s not unique to this cover: look to her latest album, Puberty 2, for a gold mine of this mournfully galvanizing sound.
This sonic reconfiguration and dismantlement of boy band tropes does something that One Direction, in all their earnestness, couldn’t do: it makes the lyrics matter. Mitski replaces “I roll and I roll ‘til I’m out of luck” in the first verse with the “I roll and I roll ‘til I change my luck” that initially only ends the second verse—it’s also the resonating final line of Mitski’s version, which cuts out the superfluous last chorus. Otherwise, though, she stays true to lyrics that were written to make romance out of the fire-retardant (It’s like One Direction was making a PSA for fire safety, which is kinda endearing). But in her hands, “Fireproof” is repurposed from a nonflammable love song to an insurgent expression of passion and longing. Released exclusively on Bandcamp for their Our First 100 Days project, a collective album that uses proceeds to fund organizations tackling new challenges under the Trump presidency, Mitski’s “Fireproof” is a rallying cry that, despite its name, is fully capable of lighting a fire in (or under) all of us.