One thing leads to another. Earlier this week I was listening to Handel’s “Messiah” when I remembered an email newsletter that I had received some weeks back featuring a collaborative cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (now how does “Messiah” lead to “Hallelujah”? Don’t ask, please). More of that joint effort later, but it got me thinking about the number of covers of this song that I have heard. Apparently, over 300 artists have covered this song of which I have heard a meagre 11 apart from the original. Not bad for a song that the record company did not want to release initially (how often have we heard of the idiocy of record labels). Interestingly, Cohen himself has often altered the lyrics and renditions of “Hallelujah” over the years and other artistes who’ve covered this song have also ‘tweaked’ it a bit, e.g. Rufus Wainwright changed “Holy Dove” to “Holy Dark” (see below). Probably the standard version, lyrically, of “Hallelujah” is the one made famous by John Cale. Subsequent attempts by other musicians are founded on this version.

The song has meant different things to different people – from the religiosity of Guy Garvey’s (Elbow’s vocalist) interpretation to the sensuality of Jeff Buckley’s. That comes from the lyrics, both the original (on the left below) and the one that has become standard (to the right) and the feeling that the musician has lent it.

Now 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 HallelujahHallelujah 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, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Hallelujah 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 you?
There’s a blaze of light In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah Hallelujah

 

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 HallelujahHallelujah 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

Hallelujah Hallelujah

Maybe 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

Hallelujah Hallelujah

There was a time you’d let me know
What’s real and going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
Remember when I moved in you?
The Holy Dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Hallelujah Hallelujah

Maybe there’s a God above
And all I ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
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

Hallelujah Hallelujah

When you have hundreds of versions of a song, it’s but reasonable that not all will have your hair on end when you listen. I think Bon Jovi’s attempt (live, but ought to have been killed at birth) is execrable and Bono’s spoken word treatment on the Cohen tribute “Tower Of song” quite boring. Friends, fiends and in-betweens that I’ve spoken to have their own favourites. Do check out Allison Crowe’s cover and K. D. Lang’s spectacular performance at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The first time I heard the song was Rufus Wainwright’s evocation of hopeless love, betrayal and despair. Even now when I hear him sing “She tied you to a kitchen chair / She broke your throne, she cut your hair / And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah”, I break down. Yet a strange sense of spirituality grips me. Can’t explain it. Best to stick to the music.

But this is the one that started it all, Leonard Cohen’s original. I hate it. I love Cohen’s music generally and more importantly for me he’s one of the few musicians whose lyrics I pay attention to – such a master songwriter. But the way he sings this one makes me want to bury my head in a vacuum bowl. Maybe I feel that way because I had already heard a few brilliant covers before I came across the original. Anyway, here it is. You take a call.

Arguably, the most famous cover of “Hallelujah” is the late Jeff Buckley’s. Famous enough for a number of people to believe that his is the original. It took me a while to really appreciate it, perhaps because I was so caught up with some of the other songs on his brilliant album “Grace”. Over time his controlled mix of sensual near-whisper and impassioned vocal breakout has got me hooked.

Blackstratblues is the name that covers the brilliant Warren Mendonca. The NH7 newsletter that I mentioned earlier carried the intriguing collaboration of Mendonca and Asian Underground genre pioneer Karsh Kale on a mix of “Hallelujah” and “Ode To A Sunny Day” by Blackstratblues. This has got to be the most stylish and melodic take on the song that I’ve heard. I’m so hooked to it that I play it at every opportunity. Please do listen to this one in its entirety.

P.S. The first 3 samples when put together cover all the lyrics including the parts found in one but not the other (see lyrics above). The last audio embedded is the full piece.

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Comments
  1. Elliot says:

    I have a love hate relationship with this song. I think it is a great song, but the way it has been used in various versions, in various movies, really grates with me. I really don’t like when a film uses a song, that others have used, to “achieve an emotional” moment. The emotional moment should come from the scene itself. It feels like a cheap shot and kills the song for me.

    So this has had the effect of temporarily ruining the song for me. But that said, underneath that, I do think it has a high level of quality. That is why it has been covered so often, and there are good versions in it. Arguably the Jeff Buckley version has become the definitive one.

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    • DyingNote says:

      Not really the song’s fault. I remember having read about even Cohen supporting a moratorium on its use a few years back. Buckley’s has become the definitive, but that’s media created. Pardon my cynicism

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      • Elliot says:

        No not the songs fault, as I said, it’s love / hate. I find overkill devalues its currency, but it is not alone in that respect.

        I know what you mean with the media creation of Buckley’s version, and perhaps because of his death at that time, also helped with it taking hold in that way. But it is a good version. Whether it is the best is just personal taste.

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  2. John S says:

    Jeff Buckley’s version is one great piece of an extraordinary album. I fear the song is now most associated with “Shrek”!

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  3. Jay says:

    The most appropriate use of this song in a movie was in Nicholas Cage’s “Lord of War”…(not like the ones where it is used in a spiritual context!), if you really understand the meaning/context of this song.

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    • DyingNote says:

      This song gets used in different contexts. I’m not sure if there’s a ‘best’ use for it. That makes it very interesting in my opinion.

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      • Jay says:

        Agree, if it can give the song a new dimension, why not? I was talking about the mediocre usage of the song to support an emotional/death/spiritual scene- just because of the word Hallelujah, I guess… Classic example – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjjOSZ4DZew
        Maybe I am feeling grumpy, that’s all!

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        • DyingNote says:

          That is true indeed. Quite a few crappy versions and interpretations of it. No wonder Cohen himself got tired of it when he said he’d support a moratorium on its continued use a few years back

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          • DyingNote says:

            Jay, when I wrote ‘That is true indeed’ I was referring to your comment on the mediocre usage of this song, not to your ‘feeling grumpy’ >;->

            I didn’t say this before – and I should have – but thank you for dropping by.

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            • Jay says:

              No worries. Anyhow, while on the topic, I would recommend watching “Lord of War”, if you haven’t already and tell me what you think of the song in the movie. (It’s used in reference to Delila and Bathseba.)

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              • DyingNote says:

                I have seen the movie, but I have no memory of the soundtrack. I’m usually in single-track mode when watching a movie. Will check the soundtrack now that you mention it.

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  4. tuttacronaca says:

    My favorite song! 🙂

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