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Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen

Editor’s note: Another great posting from Matt Thurston who seems to always have a song stuck in his head. Leonard Cohen is not a one-hit wonder, but “Hallelujah” is arguably his greatest hit.

While most songs burst into the world fully formed, some songs take years, or even multiple artistic interpretations, to really find its voice.

Case in point: “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

With a few exceptions, Cohen’s 40+ year, hall-of-fame career can be broken into roughly two periods: his early, largely folkie period, characterized by acoustic guitars and a high baritone voice; and his later, largely electronic period, characterized by synthesizers, backing female vocals, and a very deep bass voice.

“Hallelujah” appeared on Cohen’s Various Positions album in 1984, an album that more or less straddles the line between his folkie and electronic periods. While Cohen would eventually perfect his electronic sound four years later in 1988 with his masterpiece I’m Your Man, Various Positions (and “Hallelujah”) lacks a coherent identity. Cohen seems to have one foot stuck in the past, and one foot searching for a footing in the future.

Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is not a fully-formed, mature “adult.” It more resembles an “awkward, gangly teen,” albeit one with signs of eventual potential. In “Hallelujah’s” case, these signs of potential can be found in the song’s dazzling and evocative lyrics.

While always a capable song-writer, Cohen, the lyric-writer, has few peers in modern music history. Today, Cohen is often viewed as a kind of poet laureate of the music world. And the lyrics to “Hallelujah” are no exception – a haunting song about Love, Loss, God, the Meaning-of-Life, etc., and filled with rich, biblical metaphor. Hallelujah (i.e. the word as used in the chorus of the song) represents everything from the Word of God to the sound of an orgasm.

Read “Hallelujah” lyrics

Cohen evidently spent at least one year writing the lyrics, eventually penning over 80 verses, before settling on the final five verses used in the recorded song.

Listen to Leonard Cohen sing “Hallelujah”

John Cale and Jeff Buckley remake “Hallelujah”

But all of this would be a mere footnote in music history were it not for other artists, primarily John Cale and Jeff Buckley, who mentored “Hallelujah” from awkward teen” to fully mature adult.

John Cale’s version of “Hallelujah” from the 1991 Leonard Cohen tribute album, “I’m Your Fan,” takes the song from teen to “young adult” by stripping away the “produced sound” (i.e. the electronics and background singers), slightly speeding-up the tempo, and infusing the lyrics with meaning. Cale’s voice is filled with emotion, and for the first time we not only hear the Hallelujah, we actually feel the Hallelujah.

Listen to John Cale perform “Hallelujah”

Jeff Buckley Performs THE Version of “Hallelujah”

While Cale’s version became something of a cult favorite in the early 90s, it was Jeff Buckley’s 1994 version from his album Grace that finally brought the song into full, mature adulthood. Buckley did this by replacing Cale’s piano with acoustic guitar and singing with a high-tenor, quavering voice capable of penetrating even the darkest of souls. Buckley’s version isn’t so much a song as a sacrament.

Listen to Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah”

The Hallelujah floodgates open

Buckley’s version opened the Hallelujah floodgates. Today, the song has been recorded by over 180 artists, from Rufus Wainwright to K.D. Lang to Bob Dylan to Willie Nelson to Bon Jovi to Sheryl Crow to Bono. It even showed up in the first Shrek movie. Talk about an earworm. In fact, 2008 may have been the biggest year ever for “Hallelujah” as Alexandra Burke’s version charted #1 in England and Ireland, and Jeff Buckley’s version was the #1 digital download in March of 2008 due to a performance of “Hallelujah” by Jason Castro on American Idol. Amazing legs for the “awkward, gangly teen” of 25 years ago. Hallelujah, indeed.

Buy Hallelujah by Jeff Buckely

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I'm an obsessive music collector, cataloger, commenter and trivia nut. Sometimes I'm even a listener. One-hit wonders have always been a guilty pleasure.

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2 Responses to "Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen"

  1. […] You can also read his reviews of Elton John’s “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” or “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen or his description of the curse of being Michael Jackson’s younger brother […]

  2. […] link: Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen More Songs You Should Hear:Hallelujah Lyrics – Leonard CohenHallelujah – Leonard CohenBaby I Love […]

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