VARIOUS POSITIONS | Sbme Special Markets | 1984 | List price: $7.98 | Get it for less at Amazon
I’M YOUR FAN | Atlantic/WEA | 1991 | List price: $13.96 | Get it for less at Amazon
GRACE | Sony | 1994 | List price: $7.99 | Get it for less at Amazon
HYMNS OF THE 49th PARALLEL | Nonesuch | 2004 | List price: $18.98 | Get it for less at Amazon
Few expressions have survived the millennia as well as “Hallelujah,” which translates for most into “Praise the Lord.” Fittingly, few songs have been puzzled over, appreciated, and re-worked like Leonard Cohen’s 1984 composition “Hallelujah.” If Wikipedia is to be trusted, the song has been covered approximately 200 times by artists as disparate as Bob Dylan and Bon Jovi. There are three versions widely acknowledged as not only the most accessible, but also the most important interpretations of the song: John Cale’s, Jeff Buckley’s, and k.d. lang’s.
Leonard Cohen has been writing and performing music since 1967. In 1984, Cohen’s sound took on more modern affectations with the introduction of synthesizers. His forte had always been songwriting – so it hardly mattered what type of music was accompanying his lyrics. As Cohen originally recorded it, “Hallelujah” is a robust canticle to lust, a wry ode to the glory of sex and a sad hymn to the eventual end of relationships. Not much was made of the song at the time of the album’s release; the popularity of “Hallelujah” exploded due to it being covered by other artists (and used liberally in film soundtracks). Musically, the track does not overdo the synthpop styling, unlike other tracks on VARIOUS POSITIONS and Cohen’s subsequent album, I’M YOUR MAN. It keeps with simple bass, sparse guitar plucking, powerful gospel backing vocals (a typical Cohen arrangement), and never threatens to overpower the deep bass of Cohen’s singing.
Many are misled by the biblical references in the song and interpret it as a religious track. Cohen sings two references that fuel this: the first is a direct mention of King David, author of the Psalms; the second a more oblique nod to Samson, whose power was taken when his hair was cut by the seductress Delilah. When taken as a whole, the second verse addresses, in order, longing (‘Your faith was strong but you needed proof’), temptation (“You saw her bathing on the roof”), lust (“Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you”), foreplay (“She tied you to a kitchen chair”), sex (“She broke your throne, she cut your hair”), and finally, climax (“And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah”).
There are alternate lyrics that Cohen wrote which were not included in the original, but which he has sung live in place of his original last two verses; these alternate verses are the ones used in most covers. They illustrate further the power struggle, and eventually the breakdown, of the relationship in question. Cale and Buckley both cover the alternate fourth verse, but k.d. lang’s cover forgoes it. In it, Cohen addresses the growing emotional and/or sexual distance in the relationship (“There was a time you let me know / What’s really going on below / But now you never show it to me, do you?”), and fondly reminds his lover of when things were newer and more exciting (“I remember when I moved in you / and the holy dove was moving too / and every breath we drew was Hallelujah”).
In the 1990’s, Cohen the songwriter was highly in vogue. Cohen’s work was being used in films PUMP UP THE VOLUME and NATURAL BORN KILLERS), tribute cover albums were popping up all over the place and his mainstream popularity exploded. High profile covers by alternative superstars such as R.E.M. and The Pixies brought Cohen’s work to an entirely new audience. One of the most significant results of these projects would be John Cale’s re-arrangement of “Hallelujah” for the 1991 album I’M YOUR FAN.
Welshman John Cale was a founding member of The Velvet Underground. His tenure only lasted a couple of years there, but he’s had a remarkably accomplished career since. His multi-instrumental skills, frequent forays into different genres and his demand as a producer have cemented his musical legacy.
Cale chose a simple piano arrangement, eschewing background vocals, for his cover of “Hallelujah.” The effect was strong – the song’s brittle tenderness is laid bare on his concise, four minute version. Also significant is that the record showcased Cohen’s “alternate” verses for the first time outside of a live venue. Cale’s version tends to evoke less passion and more sorrow, and thus keeps with the later part of Cohen’s original composition – mourning the passing of the relationship itself. Using a precise and direct diction, one can imagine Cale wincing with emotional pain as he sings his “Hallelujah.”
More sorrowful still is Jeff Buckley’s cover of the song, featured on his 1994 debut album GRACE. Buckley is said to have connected with the song on a more sexual level than Cale seemed to, but the arrangement – this time done solely on guitar – is more closely related to Cale’s version than Cohen’s original. Buckley allows his gorgeous voice to soar while the guitar stays calm – in this case you can imagine Buckley singing this directly to his lover, perhaps even as they both lay in the afterglow. Buckley slows the pace down considerably – his version comes in at nearly seven minutes – thanks in part to a sweetly played bridge two thirds of the way through the song. After this, Buckley ramps up his vocal delivery considerably, clearly going for a strong finish. Tragically, Buckley drowned in 1997. He never experienced the considerable popularity of his beautifully rendered version, but it’s almost certain that it wouldn’t have mattered to Buckley – “Hallelujah” was clearly a composition close to his heart.
Capitalizing on the more romantic overtones of the song, the makers of SHREK included the song “Hallelujah” in the film and on its double-platinum selling soundtrack in 2001. Curiously, the film featured Cale’s version, while the soundtrack featured Rufus Wainwright’s recording – which, while apparently inspired more by Buckley’s cover, uses Cale’s arrangement and is strikingly similar. While the song had been known before, its inclusion in the blockbuster SHREK caused its popularity to soar. Thanks to this, Buckley’s cover, which of course owes everything to Cale’s arrangement, became exceptionally popular over the course of the decade. There came a time in the mid-2000s where the song was nearly inescapable on the small screen. Toward the end of the decade various versions of “Hallelujah” were being used on the big screen frequently enough to lead to a prominent film critic calling for a moratorium on its use therein. The film WATCHMEN seemed to kick the last nail into the coffin by featuring Cohen’s version while two costumed heroes made love in a hovering aircraft.
In 2004, k.d. lang covered the song on the album HYMNS OF THE 49th PARALLEL. Marrying Cale and Buckley’s versions with a smattering of Cohen’s original, lang produced what Cohen cohort Anjani Thomas has opined as the definitive version. Piano mixes comfortably with guitar behind lang’s dusky voice. She makes no effort to keep the song small or subtle, and effectively creates an entirely different arrangement. When the orchestral backing rises during the second verse, the song is awash in staggering beauty. As with Cohen’s original, the dichotomy of pleasure and (emotional) pain is back in full force and undiluted on lang’s recording. For anyone looking for the manner in which Cohen himself would likely have recorded the song in the 2000s rather than the 1980s, look no further. It is possibly the crowning achievement for k.d. lang in what has been an already amazing and decorated career.
While the years have taken their toll on “Hallelujah,” both by misuse and simple overuse, the power of the song remains undiminished when listened to carefully. Whether one prefers the sly delivery of Cohen’s original, the stripped-bare Cale cover, Buckley’s organic, fluid version, or k.d. lang’s soaring, gorgeous take, the song retains its pedigree as one of the better written songs of our time and a treasure that cannot be truly tarnished.
“Hallelujah” – written by Leonard Cohen
I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this; the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well, really…what’s it to ya?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I told the truth, I didn’t come to fool ya.
And even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
(Below are alternate lyrics written by Cohen and used variously in live concerts,
also used in Cale, Buckley and lang studio versions, whereas the previous two verses are not)
Baby, I’ve been here before
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you
I’ve seen your flag on the Marble Arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
(This fourth verse not used in k.d. lang’s cover)
There was a time you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
I remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
Maybe there’s a God above
All I ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who out drew you
And it’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
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