Monday, May 04, 2015

21: Hallelujah - Leonard Cohen/Jeff Buckley

There's been more study done into this song than probably any other in the Top Forty list. And I won't bore you with it, you can read that elsewhere. It will suffice to say that when you think about which version to share with people, you're unlikely to suggest the original 1984 recording by Leonard Cohen.

Which leads to the question of which version to put here. Obvious answers would be John Cale, Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright, but the thing seems to have been covered by everyone in the history of history, and most of them are disappointing because they miss what would seem to me to be the strongest part of the song - the last verse in Cohen's original. The melody itself is musically simple but strong enough to carry just a vocal and a single instrument (although you can easily add a choir if you want) - and the best part, music-wise, is that wonderful walk-up from (if you're performing in G) D through B7 (so you get the D# note) and up to E for the E-minor. Rufus Wainwright went for B-minor rather than B7 at that point so ends up with two D's then an E. Sounds different and is mildly interesting but frankly he missed a trick without the D#.

But the words, the words, the words. Starting with a simple, relatively jumbled set of Biblical themes (David? Samson? eh?) and even some musical instructions at the beginning (you know the bit I mean, but have you ever heard anything like that in any other song?).. but it grows, and in the final verse used by Cale, Buckley and co we end up with the spiritual ambiguity that sums up so much of the song ("Well maybe there's a God above, but all I ever learned from love...") followed by the acknowledgement that "the hallelujah" is "cold and broken". Sums it up, really, no sense of hope for anything beyond this.

But Cohen himself continues into another verse, the astounding lyrics rising with the fourth, fifth, minor fall and major lift to propell the listener, the singer, and anyone else in the vicinity into a state of semi-rapturous hope despite the hopelessness of the situation.

Well 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 ya.
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah...

For that reason I offer two versions for your enjoyment. Jeff Buckley's famous cover (above) and yes, the original 1984 Leonard Cohen version - right here:

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