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“Torn” Between Worlds: One Hit, Many Artists

If you’re a pop historian and/or a Natalie Imbruglia superfan, you might have noticed that this week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Imbruglia’s single “Torn.” Otherwise, this landmark might have passed you by, and no slight to Imbruglia — that’s just how the churn of the charts works sometimes. For a song that was nigh-omnipresent in late ’97 and most of 1998, it seems to have lost some of its staying power, at least as far as immediately recognizable catchiness goes, and it’s not goofy or frivolous enough to fit with the current wave of half-ironic Mouth Moods-style nostalgia either. Hell, every time I try to hear the chorus in my head it just winds up merging with Evanescence’s “Bring Me To Life” — and I’ve just listened to a half-dozen different versions of “Torn” multiple times for this article. So how did it become such a hit, what happened next for the artist who made it a chart smash, and where’d the song even come from in the first place?

In retrospect, “Torn” might be one of those covers you didn’t know was a cover: Ednaswap might have gotten enough due credit for writing the song, but that band didn’t exactly become a household name even after Imbruglia took their song to the Grammys. Not that it was their first instinct to claim the song for themselves: When Scott Cutler, Anne Preven, and Phil Thornalley first wrote the song, they wound up giving it to Lis Sørensen, a Danish pop singer who recorded it as “Brændt” (“Burned”) for her 1993 album Under Stjernerne Et Sted. And this is how “Torn”‘s status as a testbed for ’90s alt-rock trends began: Listen to this version, and you’ll hear the vaguely hip-hop funk-break drums, some RHCP-oid wah wah deep in the mix, and some occasional residual synthesizers that sound trapped halfway between late-’80s pop and mid-’90s dance crossover. It’s not quite in Morcheeba territory yet, but it definitely sounds like it’s en route to tasteful trip-hop-adjacent coffee shop music.

Soon enough, though, Ednaswap took up the mantle of recording the song themselves, and the LA-based alt-rockers had more than one shot at it. Their self-titled ’95 debut on EastWest buried their first version of it near the back of the album, but it still sounds like the potential hit it later became; it’s got a nice sort of post-psychedelic twang to it, and Preven’s lead vocal is pop-professional but still sounds fairly intense enough to make the midtempo rock ballad sound like it’s got some teeth to it. It’s too clean for college radio and not bro-snarly enough for active rock, but if it ever found its way to a radio dial it’s the kind of thing where the volume knob would probably be turned before the tuner is.

Ednaswap gave the song another shot on their ’96 EP Chicken, and carried it over to their subsequent sophomore album Wacko Magneto (how’s that for a 1997 album title) — this time in a slower, snarlier version where the guitars are more distorted, Preven’s voice is more reflectively bitter, and the drums wait until the second verse to kick in for maximum lung-punch effect. And this is the version that does the most justice to the sourness of the breakup lyrics — the line “you couldn’t be that man I adore/ you don’t seem to know or seem to care what your heart is for” is delivered with a tone that’s pissed off, regretful, tired, and trying its best to move on, all at the same time. In a late-’90s wasteland of post-grunge, this would’ve easily stood head and shoulders above all the poor dopes angling to be the next Collective Soul.

But someone else got ahold of “Torn” before Ednaswap could release it as the second single from their album. Before she recorded her debut LP, Natalie Imbruglia was best known as a model and actress who appeared on the Australian soap opera Neighbours — a role she quickly grew to hate due to the stress involved and her reluctance to be a big public celebrity. Once she got out of her contract, her new manager suggested that she explore her interest in music, and the four-song demo she sent to RCA — including a version of “Torn” — got her signed to BMG.

Her version, produced by original writer Thornalley, and mixed by a fresh-off-OK Computer Nigel Godrich, is where “Torn” sounds its most late-’90s. (One of the culprits: the limp-noodle drum programming by Sam Hardaker of I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Air chillout perpetrators Zero 7.) It rose quickly up the charts, with more than four million copies of the single selling across Europe and a near-permanent omnipresence on the radio in Imbruglia’s native Australia. But in the States, it provided a perfect example of one of the industry’s biggest pitfalls of the last pre-Napster days: “Torn” wasn’t released as a single in the US, and anyone who wanted a copy had to buy the full album, Left Of The Middle. So they did, to the tune of double-platinum, a certification that came less than a year after the album’s release.

Three Grammy nominations later — Best Pop Vocal Album (beaten by Madonna’s Ray Of Light), Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (rolled over by the unstoppable force of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”), and Best New Artist (congratulations, Lauryn Hill) — the album could be safely called an industry success, though not necessarily a critical one. Even when it was a positive comparison, constant “next Alanis” labels didn’t help much, nor did perplexed shrugs from Robert Christgau (his C+ focusing on her glamour-biz marketing and muttering “her competent songs are no more distinctive than the competent songs of hundreds of less pretty women”) and Rob Sheffield at Rolling Stone (saying the “too many cooks” production added “rock guitars and industrial clank beats that have nothing to do with her fey charms”).

“Shiver” hit big in the UK a few years later, but not until after a couple years’ worth of Imbruglia asserting creative control by turning down songs she didn’t feel fit her (including a set from Swedish hit machines Bloodshy & Avant) and seeing an entire third album get scrapped by the label for being “too rock.” She’s still recording music, and on her own terms — her latest album, recorded after a six-year hiatus, is an all-covers deal titled Male, after the gender of the songs’ original singers — but in the public consciousness, particularly in the States, she’s still the “Torn” singer.

As if there were only one. The reach of this song has been a weird one, with cover versions in and Portugese and Uzbek; it’s been subject to the twin indignities of Glee and pop-punk covers; it’s been included in the infamous “4 Chords” video by comedy music act Axis Of Awesome as an example of cliché song composition and sampled by Brockhampton in a giddy flouting of that cliché. And it’s been Carly Rae Jepsen’ed before she was Carly! Rae! Jepsen!, so some folks have gone on to bigger things after covering it after all. As for Ednaswap? Well, they broke up in ’99, after their third album Wonderland Park, and their spinoff band Annetenna had its only album lost in the shuffle when Columbia Records went through one of those typical “reorganization” periods. But sometimes, all you really need is one song to make it, and “Torn” is unlikely proof of that.