Apparently Zak suggested covering the Bee Gees; a sentence that those who only know them from Saturday Night Fever and on might find kind of horrifying (although, I don't know, I think Low, especially 'classic' Low, tackling disco sounds kind of appealing...). But this was the Bee Gees of Idea and Odessa which is a very different, much more Beatlesque thing indeed. Alan said "someday we'll cover their whole first record," which is an idea that I can only hope he still finds interesting. Better than the Walkmen doing Nilsson, anyways.
I can't decide if I like the original (the only thing Robin Gibb has ever sung that I've loved is the demo of "Sing Slowly Sisters" I got on my computer which is, quite frankly, fucking spooky), and given the weirdness of the lyrics I'm not even sure what I think of Low's decision to cover it (although hey, if it's good enough for Faith No More, who I never would have guessed would tackle this one straight, then why not?). But it turns out okay.
Crucially, Mimi sings lead, with Alan keeping himself to backing "ohhhh ohhhh"s. He would have done a good job too, but given the cruel twist in his voice that is his greatest strength I could see him making "I Started a Joke" as near painful to listen to. It's a song of teenage self-pity, something that only works if sung with total conviction, but that could get to be too much if sung by the guy who invests "John Prine," "Breaker," and so on with such power. Which doesn't mean I think Alan takes the song more seriously than Mimi or anything, just that I'm not sure he could sing it with the lightness she brings to "I Started a Joke." (then again, the Journey cover suggests I'm thinking about this too much)
I really like Low's approach to covers (do plenty, but keep them off the albums, basically), as their sound even now is different enough structurally from a pop song like this one that it'd stick out like a sore thumb on any of their records. But without slowing it down too much or altering the melody they make it unmistakably their own, to the extent that the first time I heard it I went "of course, of all the Bee Gees songs that's the one that sounds the most Low." I think it's an example of their sense of humour, actually, to play it so straight, especially for a compilation benefiting the late LA club Jabberjaw, one of the band's first and favourite clubs to play. This one isn't a "Down by the River," it isn't even a "Blue-Eyed Devil" (where Low do exactly what you'd expect them to do to a very un-Low like song, albeit to great effect). Hell, this isn't even as radical a cover as Cowboy Junkies' take on "Sweet Jane" or "Powderfinger." It strips the quavery urgency from the Bee Gees' version, mostly due to Mimi's patient drums and laid back vocals, but she doesn't turn it into a joke. She doesn't give the "I looked at the skies" part the vocal stick that Mike Patton does, but the song does go more dramatic there; the difference is in the calm it returns to with the "I finally died" part. Like all good versions of this song, the tone is different enough once they get to "I looked at the skies" it's as if a different, and better, song has broken into the rather silly "joke/crying," "crying/laughing" structure of the verse. There isn't really a chorus, but you don't notice that the first couple of times, which gives you an idea of how catchy the various parts are.
It's an interesting (for better or worse) song done well. Not exactly the most earth-shaking thing Low have done, although the fact that some have theorized that the song is sung from the perspective of the devil is all kinds of interesting. It's the Low song you can put on a mix tape for your mom without worrying. Nothing wrong with that, really.