The beautiful, broken song of Leonard Cohen
November 30, 2010 8:33 PM   Subscribe

Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen may hold the pop music record for highest ratio of covers to initial popular success. Why? theories abound, but in an essay in America Magazine Thomas G. Casey, S.J., director of the Cardinal Bea Center for Judaic Studies in Rome and professor of philosophy at the Gregorian University, offers an interesting and compelling argument why this is a song for our time. It also provides a framework for understanding the difference between the good, the bad and the meh.
posted by TheShadowKnows (99 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
 
My money's on the John Cale version.
posted by LucretiusJones at 8:37 PM on November 30, 2010 [8 favorites]


He's wrong about the Buckley version being in Shrek, it was John Cale in the movie and Rufus Wainwright on the soundtrack.
posted by naoko at 8:43 PM on November 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


The song has a quite comprehensive wiki-page
posted by razorian at 8:47 PM on November 30, 2010


Cohen's version of the song is fantastic and there's no need to cover it if all you're gonna do is copy it.

When people start covering Jazz Police in droves there'll be a need to write essays.
posted by dobbs at 8:51 PM on November 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


They lost me around paragraph 2 when they continued to be unusually fixated on bizarre ethnic sterotypes. I love a good Yeats quote as much as the next girl, but that's far too off-putting an intro to justify a dip into Bartlett's. Literally the entire first two paragraphs are xenophobic nonsense that could have been cut in favor of starting with the third paragraph.

I also dig that they needed to remind the reader that the song HAS NO BIBLICAL REFERENCES FROM THE NEW TESTAMENT, OMG.

But despite all that bile, damn, that's a gorgeous song.
posted by Sara C. at 8:53 PM on November 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


Cohen's version of the song is fantastic and there's no need to cover it if all you're gonna do is copy it.

I'm with Dobbs on this. Nothing particularly wrong with John Cale's or Jeff Buckley's takes -- I'm just tired of it all, particularly with so very many exquisite songs (and recordings thereof) that are habitually ignored for lack of some big deal movie or soft drink or beer or bank getting behind them.
posted by philip-random at 9:00 PM on November 30, 2010


The Welsh Version, as I understand it, is not only awesome, but the only authorized cover, oddly changes the lyrics to be about the Israel/Palestine conflict.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:02 PM on November 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


As noted in the article, Cohen has a bunch of different versions of the song. It's kind of like John Stewart's protean "Daydream Believer" or "Do You Love Me?" by Nick Cave.

My favorite version is the one that starts with the Casio keyboard and the secret chord. The one TheShadowKnows is the later, wiser one.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:03 PM on November 30, 2010


Excuse me but it's been scientifically proven that K.D. Lang has the best cover of Hallelujah ever performed.
posted by Talez at 9:04 PM on November 30, 2010 [22 favorites]


I would be remiss if I did not mention the great big pile of covers of Hallelujah that various mefites did last June.
posted by cortex at 9:05 PM on November 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


FYI, you have a typo up there, you put the Jeff Buckley version linked from "the good."
posted by Threeway Handshake at 9:09 PM on November 30, 2010 [9 favorites]


And this is my favorite cover of a Cohen song (though he didn't write it, most people know his version and no other).
posted by dobbs at 9:09 PM on November 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


Surely “Skalellujah”?
posted by joeclark at 9:11 PM on November 30, 2010 [6 favorites]


Lots of people hate Bono's version and I can't really blame them, but I've always had a fondness for it. It's so utterly different from what you expect the song to be. Not that different means better, I've just always liked this version.
posted by kmz at 9:15 PM on November 30, 2010


I lost respect for the author when he said that Jeff Buckley's version was popularized in Shrek. (It was John Cale, as naoko points out.) If you can't recognize the different versions, why are you writing an article about a song?

He goes on to say that Cale's version is the definitive lyrics, but then quotes lines not in that version. ("And even though it all went wrong...")

Another article about the song from 2007 is here.

And in this excellent interview, Cohen says that Hallelujah has been overdone and people need to stop.
posted by wanderingstan at 9:16 PM on November 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


Glad to finally see some well-deserved backlash against the Buckley version. There's nothing wrong with it, it's just flat and misses the point. The song is about building to a huge, divine peak and Buckley just kind of meanders his way through it with no particular conviction.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:17 PM on November 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


I lost respect for the author when he said that Jeff Buckley's version was popularized in Shrek.

And the quote listing all the different drugs and such? It's verbatim from Cohen's Live in London album. I suppose he probably just does the same banter at every show, but geez, just admit you heard it on his latest album.
posted by Sara C. at 9:21 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Previously.

(can you do that with your own posts?)
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 9:23 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't see the article, I'm getting a 404, but I have to agree with Talez that k.d.lang does it better than Cohen himself. Her version just drips sex, and that's primarily what the song is about if you ask me.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:28 PM on November 30, 2010


Ah, I probably found that article via your post, BuddhaInABucket!

It's 404 now, but Archive.org has it.
posted by wanderingstan at 9:30 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ninet Tayeb, the first winner of the Israeli version of Pop Idol, covered it quite well, I think, at a concert commemorating the victims of the 2009 LGBT centre shooting.
posted by yiftach at 9:36 PM on November 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


That article is So Much Better. Thank you for that.

Though I have concluded that "Hallelujah" is officially a song that is too intense to listen to over and over to get a sense of the various takes on it.
posted by Sara C. at 9:38 PM on November 30, 2010


(Note, the Shrek soundtrack has a version by Rufus Wainwright which commonly gets mistaken as Buckley, as opposed to Cale's which would be harder to mistake). I've always dug the Buckley version but in a lot of ways it was because of the way he combines the guitar and his voice. I got turned on to Buckley from his Live at Sin-é album (I like that live version better too). But for pure voice KD Lang's is one of the most ethereally beautiful performances I've ever heard.
posted by bitdamaged at 9:45 PM on November 30, 2010


How did a song with so many biblical references (none of which refer to the New Testament) become ubiquitous? How did a lyrical, slow-moving tune become popular in an era when aggressive percussion and insistent drum-beats power pop songs? Why has the song been used to create atmosphere and mood in the soundtracks of many movies and TV shows? Why can’t people get enough of it?

How can you come up with so many hackneyed questions in the space of one paragraph?
posted by blucevalo at 9:46 PM on November 30, 2010 [9 favorites]


I completely agree with Sara C's comment that the first two paragraph's are at best unnecessary and the fail on the Shrek soundtrack is obviously a huge boner, yet I can't help feel that he has a finger on what the song "is about" (admittedly it's a pretty Catholic take). What I really enjoy about the Mefite comments is how they point out the extent to which my sense of good, bad and meh is really more of a statement on how well the particular cover aligns with assumptions of aboutness and how relative aboutness turns out to be.
posted by TheShadowKnows at 10:07 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Everyone knows the war is over. Everyone knows the good guys lost.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:13 PM on November 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


The place where I used to do open-mic nights had one rule and one rule only: if you wanted to play "Hallelujah," you had to buy the whole bar a round.

Just sayin'.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 10:32 PM on November 30, 2010 [5 favorites]


I could've done without knowing there's a Bon Jovi version out there...
posted by TwoWordReview at 10:35 PM on November 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


Man, pop + academia has about a 95% failure rate in most cases.

Cale's sturdy Welsh purr is one of my favorite instruments in popular music. He will always own "Hallelujah" for me. I first heard his live version on Fragments of a Rainy Season in high school, and it remains my favorite interpretation.

I adore k.d. lang - and Hymns from the 49th Parallel is her most exquisite album since Ingenue - but by the time she'd gotten around to this song, I was categorically sick of hearing it played by anyone ever. I appreciate that her version is lovely, but I only need one version of this song in my life.
posted by mykescipark at 10:47 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Listen to the original. Listen to pop music.

Can we next discuss why Captain Beefheart was never on American Bandstand?
posted by munchingzombie at 11:08 PM on November 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


Glad to finally see some well-deserved backlash against the Buckley version. There's nothing wrong with it, it's just flat and misses the point. The song is about building to a huge, divine peak and Buckley just kind of meanders his way through it with no particular conviction.

Requoted for emphasis, drjimmy11.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:11 PM on November 30, 2010


How did a song with so many biblical references (none of which refer to the New Testament) become ubiquitous? How did a lyrical, slow-moving tune become popular in an era when aggressive percussion and insistent drum-beats power pop songs? Why has the song been used to create atmosphere and mood in the soundtracks of many movies and TV shows? Why can’t people get enough of it?

>

How can you come up with so many hackneyed questions in the space of one paragraph?
posted by blucevalo An hour ago [2 favorites +]


blucevalo, you're at least half-wrong here. At least two of those questions are quite pertinent. Please choose at least one and either agree with, or refute. You have 30 minutes.

extra marks for contrition; this is an awfully Judeo-Christian thread after all
posted by philip-random at 11:25 PM on November 30, 2010


When I hear this song sung by someone who seems to really be singing about their own feelings, by someone who seems to really have known what it is to love and hurt and to see the sacred in all of that, generally I like it, even when it's done very inexpertly. The more polished versions tend to move me less, in general, no matter how well done they happen to be. It ought to be triumphant sometimes, tragic sometimes. If it's just someone with a good voice following the lyrics and the notes as written, it's nothing. It's best with flaws.

But, seriously. "None of which refer to the New Testament"? The man's name is Cohen. I might not be Jewish myself, but I was not expecting New Testament from him, no. I would think the world should deserve a little more credit for general good sense than that. I may be over-optimistic about these things, but... yeah.
posted by gracedissolved at 11:50 PM on November 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


one of my least favorite songs by one of my top five most hated musicians/singers/etc. i can't pass up a chance to express how much i dislike this guy and his music. sorry. please continue...
posted by rainperimeter at 11:52 PM on November 30, 2010




But, seriously. "None of which refer to the New Testament"? The man's name is Cohen. I might not be Jewish myself, but I was not expecting New Testament from him, no. I would think the world should deserve a little more credit for general good sense than that. I may be over-optimistic about these things, but... yeah.

That point in the article was stupid, but there's no rule that Jewish songwriters can't reference the New Testament (or the Adi Granth, or the Avesta, or the Qur'an). It's not like Leonard Cohen was writing only Jewish religious hymns.
posted by kmz at 12:28 AM on December 1, 2010


I think the point is that the author danced around the OMG HE'S JEWISH way too much. Like to the point that it seemed he was apologizing for discussing the music of A JEW OHNOEZ.

Or to put a slightly more positive spin on it, that he was apologizing for discussing a song that is spiritual and yet quite clearly not Christian at all.

And while I got that it was a Catholic publication - dude, who cares? Either you approve of the song and want to promote it in your magazine/website/whatever, or you do not approve of it and should maybe get the author to write a different essay about a different piece of music.
posted by Sara C. at 12:42 AM on December 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


Cohen talks about Jesus quite a bit in his other songs. I'm not sure who get's mentioned more, Jesus or Joan of Arc.

As for Leonard Cohen covers, I generally don't like them. The Pixies probably did my favourite one when they covered 'I cant forget'.
posted by Grimgrin at 12:51 AM on December 1, 2010


David Bazan did this well.
posted by anoirmarie at 1:17 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Dumb article. This song is so not about religion. But let's not let understanding metaphor and symbolism in poetry get in the way of things.
posted by unigolyn at 1:30 AM on December 1, 2010


The interview mentioned here is really terrific. I think what I've always admired most about Leonard Cohen was his enormous great good humour.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:32 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Everyone knows the war is over. Everyone knows the good guys lost.

Yes, but not everybody can come up with an accurate quote.

Unless there is some esoteric meta-cohenic piece of information I am missing.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:44 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Welsh Version, as I understand it, is not only awesome, but the only authorized cover, oddly changes the lyrics to be about the Israel/Palestine conflict.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:02 PM on November 30 [+] [!]


God that's good. And the lyrics really don't take any prisoners. Thanks, Navelgazer.
posted by Ahab at 1:57 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


My favourite interpretation of this song centers around the love is not a victory march, it's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah lyric.

Love is cold and broken because in a perfect world we wouldn't need love, in a perfect world we'd already be one.

We need love because of the fractured and lonely experience of subjectivity. A subjectivity constructed and dependent on separation.

Separation of light from dark, of us and them and of male and female.

When I'm alone and I hear that line, I always cry.

Maybe there is no heaven...
posted by Samuel Farrow at 2:19 AM on December 1, 2010 [5 favorites]


OK, I'll rise to the bait and defend the Buckley version, and bits of the article, and even bash the original Cohen version a bit for good measure.

"Hallelujah" is an Old Testament song, and this fact has to be pointed out because although it's religious and -- one suspects -- directed heavenward, it is not directed to the happy, friendly, footprints-in-the-sand God of Christian motivational posters. This is the God of the Hebrews, terrible and majestic and mysterious and remote. Though the lyrics reference David and Samson, the song itself is Job standing before the whirlwind. It's the song of someone who has been deserted and utterly destroyed, the song of someone who now faces the ultimate ineffable. The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away, and still this singer will praise Him, because that's all that's left.

But you know what? When you reach that moment, that total rock-bottom where all you can do is yell at the storm, it's for damn certain you don't have a synth, a band and a gospel choir backing you up. It's just you and the wilderness, and that's why all my favorite versions of "Hallelujah" are just one singer and one instrument. Buckley was the first to really do this well. Others have had success with it, but I'm almost certain that's why his is so often touted as the definitive "Hallelujah", because he was the one who distilled the song down to its real essence.

I think this is also why Cohen's version, to me at least, sounds like a joke: he got this beautiful melody and these beautiful lyrics and he did what with them? It's like he's channeling the music of the spheres but decides to play it on a broken accordion. So Cohen may have penned it, but Buckley was the one who sanctified it, and I don't care how badly you want to believe otherwise :)
posted by ubernostrum at 2:36 AM on December 1, 2010 [40 favorites]


I really don't like the song. its one of Cohen's poorest songs and I dont' understand all the fuss. And I'm a huge Cohen fan.
posted by mary8nne at 2:42 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


I heard the John Cale version before I heard any other, including the original. For me it's head and shoulders above the rest; absolutely definitive. Buckley's version is too overwrought, like so much of his stuff. Cale's stately understatement just nails the song.
posted by Decani at 2:53 AM on December 1, 2010


It should be noted that much of the song's worldwide popularity comes from the Cale/Wainwright version in Shrek, and that the vast majority of the Shrek viewers who fell in love with the song are not native English speakers who did not understand the lyrics at all.
posted by elgilito at 2:56 AM on December 1, 2010


THIS has actually been discussed recently and it has been established that this live video of KD Lang singing at the Olympics is the best version of all time.
posted by smartypantz at 2:57 AM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


That was this previous post I meant to link to above.
posted by smartypantz at 2:59 AM on December 1, 2010


I'm just glad he stopped where he did or there were going to be verses rhyming "school ya" and "Missoula" and "Fallujah", all hand-cranked through the Cohen dirge-o-matic.
posted by pracowity at 3:04 AM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


At least he doesn't have the rhyming sensibility of a mediocre elementary schoolboy. Yes, I am looking right at you, Lou Reed.

Exhibit A:

Me, I know just where it's....AT
I'm just like an alley...[wait for it, wait for it] CAT!!!
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:26 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ubernostrum speaks truth about the Buckley version. That is all I have to say about that.

Whenever I hear this song now I'm reminded of a quip an aquaintance left on my blog once -- I had worked on a benefit concert held by the alumni of my high school, and posted a clip of some people singing "Hallelujiah" for what was to me "no good reason." He quipped that it is a little-known Canadian legal statute that you do not ever actually need a reason to sing Hallelujiah. Furthermore, even though the concert in question wasn't on Canadian territory, the singing of a Leonard Cohen song temporarily converts the area to Canadian territory for the duration, so the law still applied.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:30 AM on December 1, 2010 [5 favorites]


I think the thing that grabs musicians about the song is that it has, from a certain perspective, one of the most perfect lines ever in a pop song:

"It goes like this, the fourth the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift."

The first time I ever really listened to the song (the version in Shrek) I walked over to the piano and played the chords right the first time (In C) and I don't even really play the piano, I play guitar. And I'm far from a pro.

Then, of course, the rest of the song is beautiful and poignant.
posted by lordrunningclam at 4:37 AM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's like he's channeling the music of the spheres but decides to play it on a broken accordion.

You say that like it's a bad thing!
posted by speicus at 4:42 AM on December 1, 2010 [10 favorites]


In the last hour of Desert Bus, some folks donated money to the charity to hear an unnamed song, but because Tally Heilke's voice was shot from being sick and having entertained the masses, she and Dale Friesen decided to reprise the song, a capella. With harmonies.

Go Canadians!
posted by TrishaLynn at 5:35 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


one of my least favorite songs by one of my top five most hated musicians/singers/etc. i can't pass up a chance to express how much i dislike this guy and his music. sorry. please continue...

Your opinion is duly noted.
posted by Capt. Renault at 5:44 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think this is also why Cohen's version, to me at least, sounds like a joke: he got this beautiful melody and these beautiful lyrics and he did what with them? It's like he's channeling the music of the spheres but decides to play it on a broken accordion. So Cohen may have penned it, but Buckley was the one who sanctified it, and I don't care how badly you want to believe otherwise :)

At one point I would have agreed with you. My freshman year of college there were nights when we'd just gather round a computer and play Buckley and sing along to his broken voice and all feel some kind of connection. It was more than a little bit magical. It's still got that magic. But you know what, I feel feel like his cover pales in comparison to the Cohen version, to either Cohen version.

I think about the Hebrew parable (or at least I learned it in Hebrew school) about the boy with a pennywhistle who goes to a place of worship, and doesn't know the words, and doesn't know the melody, and so all he can do is just play the pennywhistle in the only way he can, which is poorly, and a lot of people stop praying and tell him to stop it, he's being rude. But then I think God comes down and tells them all to shut up and let him play because it's the heart that matters, more than the words. Or else the wise rabbi tells them this.

What's marvelous about Cohen is that it does everything it can to subvert itself. In the original version, anyway; the way he pronounces "chord" in the opening line is somehow mocking and distasteful and contemptuous and a little hilarious. And I mean, why not be mocking? Here's Leonard Cohen, man rooted in folk, playing with a rinky dinky set of synth sounds. The whole beginning of the song he sounds less like a man in prayer than he sounds like a young boy reading along to the lines in the prayerbook but mocking them as he speaks. When he rhymes "do you" to fit "hallelujah" there's a real taunting in his voice.

As he goes, he grows sincerer and sincerer. He starts reaching for the notes he can't reliably hit; the lines get longer and longer, as if he's desperate to cram something more into the song that he hasn't been able to put in. The recording reflects this too: Listen to Cohen's again and notice how small the room his chorus seems to be signing in. There isn't this huge reverb like they're singing in a church or a concert hall. It feels tiny, limiting.

To me Cohen captures that weird state where you're deeply emotionally wracked, just devastated really, and you know (or feel) that you shouldn't be, you do everything you can to laugh at yourself or to mock yourself or to make yourself feel like shit, but all the mockery you heap on can't change the fact that you're really genuinely upset. Even if you feel like you've got next to no reason to be upset. Even if you feel like your being upset is so goddamned trivial that you're doing a disgrace to all the people who have a more valid reason to feel upset than mere heartbreak. But that doesn't stop your emotions from getting the best of you.

Buckley sings Hallelujah in earnest and he is worse off for it. This is not a song that's about fondling yourself emotionally and wallowing in being upset. This is a song that you sing along to when you, too, think you're being an idiot for being upset, so you sing to mock yourself, but somewhere by the end the voices overwhelm you and so you end it weeping, for yourself and for your earthly form that you try and fail to have any control over. It's not about singing to God. It's about singing to an ordinary human being — a more painful, difficult, and (in this case, anyway) rewarding effort.
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:50 AM on December 1, 2010 [31 favorites]


Hallelujah may be overplayed and overcovered, but it still has an effect on me every time I hear it. It's raw and poignant (especially when done right) and conveys a sense of loss better than any other song I know.

And I had not heard K.D. Lang's version before, so thank you for that. She sings every word as if it were occurring to her right in the moment, funneled straight up from the depths of her heart. Perfect.
posted by misha at 5:53 AM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


They lost me around paragraph 2 when they continued to be unusually fixated on bizarre ethnic sterotypes.

I also dig that they needed to remind the reader that the song HAS NO BIBLICAL REFERENCES FROM THE NEW TESTAMENT, OMG.

I think what's going on here has more to do with narcissism than it does with xenophobia, not that this excuses anything. The author's the director of a Center for Judaic Studies, so the old-testament fixation sounds to me either like an "OMG, this fits squarely within my field," or a flattering signal to his current employers ("OMG, I'm totally writing about your field").

And the Irish bit? It sure seems to me like that's his way of saying "Hey, you may have noticed in my byline that I'm the director of a Judaic Studies center, and, yeah, I'm writing about the old testament here, but don't worry: I'm no Jew."

(As recently as June, 2009, his byline listed him as being an "Irish Jesuit Priest." And when we was about to become a visiting professor at the Center for Judaic Studies he wrote an article about Ulysses' Leopold Bloom as "Ireland's Jewish Patron Saint." For what it's worth, this seems to be his first article for the magazine whose byline doesn't make mention of his priesthood (besides his S.J. honorific), and his first since becoming director. The search function doesn't seem perfectly reliable, so I might be missing some.)

(Is something that comes after one's name allowed to be called an honorific? If no, how do you refer to it?)
posted by nobody at 6:02 AM on December 1, 2010


This song has become the Pachelbel's Canon of our time.
posted by Herodios at 6:27 AM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


I like what Emmy the Great does with it, though its not a full cover.
posted by holdkris99 at 6:36 AM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


But then I think God comes down and tells them all to shut up

I pretty much love every story where this happens. Wise rabbis are also usually good for a story, along with cranky zen monks. Double points if callow youth gets hit with something.

And this song does not make me get all teary, nosiree.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:46 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


For those still unclear about the Buckley version,

Buckley: Hallelujah::Susan Boyle:Perfect Day
posted by Threeway Handshake at 6:47 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


See, the problem for the Buckley version, for me, is that it starts and it's fine. I like the guitar, I like his voice, I like the way the whole thing sounds. And then it just... carries on doing that. There's no payoff. I get bored.
posted by gaspode at 7:08 AM on December 1, 2010


Cortex's version, linked to above by ActingTheGoat, put a huge smile on my face. I will never hear this song the same way again. And that's okay with me!
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:09 AM on December 1, 2010


This thread led me to the MeFi challenge which led me to this and holy shit awesome.
posted by Shepherd at 7:11 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen may hold the pop music record for highest ratio of covers to initial popular success. Why?

Easy: because it's a great song that was ill-served by the original version, and some of the covers were a huge improvement.
posted by John Cohen at 7:28 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


nobody, it's not considered an honorific. It's just a designation which indicates the religious order he belongs to. To someone who's familiar with Catholic religious orders, that "S.J." is basically equivalent to the phrase "Jesuit priest."
posted by ocherdraco at 7:34 AM on December 1, 2010


I grew up a few steps from the beach. When I was a teenager, we had our stereo speakers out in the yard, and I would be on the chaise lounge out there with the first two Cohen albums on, as beachgoers walked by.

My mom was very worried about be, because of Cohen.

(Of course now, kd lang's version of this song is her favorite.)
posted by Danf at 7:53 AM on December 1, 2010


It's just you and the wilderness, and that's why all my favorite versions of "Hallelujah" are just one singer and one instrument.

We saw this performed last Saturday as duet with Rufus Wainwright and Teddy Thompson. We thought it worked quite well. Like the psalms, it easily morphs from cri de coeur to hymn.
posted by No Robots at 8:45 AM on December 1, 2010


Buckley's version will always be my favorite, and I have no problem owning up to that. I love KD Lang's version as well, and I love hearing new interpretations of the song.

I'm kind of surprised that people find the earnestness of Buckley's reading to be a point against it. I don't think the song can be sung earnestly enough. It has to be sung as if the singer is being crushed to death by the weight of the lyrics. For me, anyway. And I agree with ubernostrum that the austerity of the Buckley's arrangement benefits the song greatly.
posted by kryptondog at 9:28 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Folks, it's not really necessary to stop into a thread to tell us how much our favorite band/group/singer/poet/artist/song/whatever sucks. Mostly we don't give a shit about your opinion about that...please just STFU about it and move along.
posted by HuronBob at 9:45 AM on December 1, 2010


I stepped into an avalanche
It covered up my soul


Now there's a song for the Holiday Season. I always feel it in me the first time I walk into a mall.
posted by philip-random at 9:51 AM on December 1, 2010


Cohen's "Ten New Songs" is well worth the purchase price, and I encourage everyone to buy it.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:02 AM on December 1, 2010


Everyone's dumping on Buckley while giving Cale a pass, but it should be very, very clear it wasn't Buckley who made "Hallelujah" into a standard, it was Cale. He standardized the lyrics, he built the arrangement you hear every American/Canadian/Pop/Malawian Idol massacre every damn week on TV, and it was his version that made it into the global mega-hit Shrek, not Buckley's.

So if you want to point fingers at the all "Hallelujah" all the time thing, point them at John Cale.

But give him a pass, I think, because Cale has this knowing quality to his voice, like he understands every word of the song because he's lived every word, that is missing from Buckley's version (and pretty much every other bad cover done in the last 5 years, except perhaps kd lang's). We're OK with it because hey, he wants to own it, he can have it, we're not complaining.

I mean, check his cover of LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends." The original was written when James Murphy was 37, making him old enough to be the father of 90% of Pitchfork's writing staff (and perhaps 99% of its readership). So Murphy has that "I'm older, I understand what I'm signing" quality. But then you put it in John Cale's hands, and it's a completely different song. Murphy sounds like he's whining compared to Cale's lament of "where are my friends tonight?" And the nutgraph lyric of "I wouldn't change one stupid decision/For another five years of life" from Cale, he's telling you the truth.

And yet, it's not even that good of a cover, really. But Cale has an old voice with an emotion plainness that grabs you, slowly, by the lapels and tells you exactly how things are, so he can get away with the raggedness of the song.

This is why "Hallelujah" turned from a mid-catalog Cohen song into The Song Every 19 Year Old In The World Must Screech Out On National TV. John Cale made it into something far bigger than what it was originally, and he took possession of a song that Cohen didn't fully, completely own, so he could get away with it.
posted by dw at 10:11 AM on December 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


Most overrated song in history. Period.
posted by keep_evolving at 10:25 AM on December 1, 2010


Most overrated song in history. Period.

Not even close.
posted by dw at 10:30 AM on December 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


John Cale made it into something far bigger than what it was originally, and he took possession of a song that Cohen didn't fully, completely own, so he could get away with it.

Agree that Cale's arrangement was correct, but still think it was Buckley's rendition which grabbed the most attention. I don't think Cale alone would have turned it into the monster it became.
posted by bitdamaged at 10:47 AM on December 1, 2010


it's for damn certain you don't have a synth, a band and a gospel choir backing you up.

Enh, this is what I fight with in terms of all later Cohen stuff. I went and downloaded Various Positions (for the like the third time) last night, inspired by this FPP. It's the most beautiful poetry, backed up by the worst music since Ugg and Blargg the neanderthals started banging rocks together. Promptly re-deleted except for "Hallelujah", which is the only one that survives the pummeling.

I really want to like stuff like "Dance Me to the End of Love". But uggghhhhh, the synths! The cheesy backup vocals! My ears! They bleed!

I vote that someone with kind of a quiet and tasteful sense of arrangement and production should cover that entire album, all the way through. And I'm pretty sure this is why people tend to favor the "Hallelujah" covers by Buckley, Cale, and Wainwright, because both of them have that raw musical ability while still being competent with Cohen's raw emotion.
posted by Sara C. at 11:02 AM on December 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think this is also why Cohen's version, to me at least, sounds like a joke: he got this beautiful melody and these beautiful lyrics and he did what with them? It's like he's channeling the music of the spheres but decides to play it on a broken accordion. So Cohen may have penned it, but Buckley was the one who sanctified it, and I don't care how badly you want to believe otherwise :)

there's something that I really like about the "broken accordion" aesthetic of Cohen's original recording. Carl Wilson puts it much better than I can, thusly:
That nakedness of self before the mystery is what he achieves with the Casio. It rejects (and even parodies) the grandeur of the church organ, leaves behind the comforting myth of the guitar-toting troubador, offering a thin and humble slice of music that is more true to the puniness of the ego before the vastness of creation. The Casio also sounds of all the phoniness of modern life, of processed cheese slices and shopping malls - so that rather than fantasize that he was singing from a cabin in the woods, or a medieval castle or the communes of Paris or even the bars of 1960s Montreal, Cohen can acknowledge that he's singing from the neon streets of Los Angeles, from a venal spiritual strip club that's open all night and tired all day - and then say that this, too, is hallowed ground, and here I will lay my finest words and melodies before you, whether you are god or man, on this chintzy altar, up these cardboard steps, in a place where nothing is true and everything is permitted but I am going to try for exaltation anyway. "You say I took the name in vain? I don't even know the name." There is no magic division between sin and salvation. Ain't nobody here but us chickens, but we keep on laying these golden eggs - so crack 'em open and fry 'em up. You might be in the Dresden Room, but it means as much to fall to your knees there as in any church, and maybe a whole lot more.
posted by spindle at 11:06 AM on December 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think the greatness of the song is demonstrated by so many almost-perfect versions by diverse artists. Cohen's version remains my favorite.
posted by Sassenach at 11:09 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Can we talk about the song's (terrifying and baffling) inclusion in Watchmen?

I never thought something could ruin this song for me, but that.....that almost did.
posted by schmod at 12:39 PM on December 1, 2010


Sara C. - exactly! It's a problem! I love the man's music so much- the words, the melodies, his voice even- but the arrangements are and always have been terrible! For decades!

One of my dearest musical wishes is that Rick Rubin (or, in a pinch, almost anybody else) would record him the way he deserves to be heard. Maybe I should start a petition somewhere.
posted by hap_hazard at 12:44 PM on December 1, 2010


I was thinking Beirut or maybe Sufjan Stevens, but I don't think Steven's would go for it - he's way too much his own man at this point. Though it could help in his Quest To Render The Album Completely Obsolete. Maybe?
posted by Sara C. at 1:23 PM on December 1, 2010


Not that either of those two are quiet or tasteful. They have the technical musical ability and the chutzpah to do something like that.
posted by Sara C. at 1:24 PM on December 1, 2010


..and to add to the Buckley crowd. I love the shimmering guitar of Buckley's version.

However, my other absolutely favorite cover of Hallelujah is by Robi Draco Rosa. It just sounds to me like the most depressed inner monologue and singing man where most of it is just breaking under the weight and anger and loss. Finally some form of admittance that he is still singing it or trying to, this song, this Aleluyah to someone.
posted by lizarrd at 2:09 PM on December 1, 2010


"Can we talk about the song's (terrifying and baffling) inclusion in Watchmen?"

Actually, that might be my fault (or to my credit, depending on how you look at it.)...seriously..

It's a long story that goes back to about 1985, when I set the wheels in motion for that.... If you beg me, I'll tell you about it.
posted by HuronBob at 3:00 PM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


Consider this begging:

Make it so.
posted by yiftach at 4:37 PM on December 1, 2010


i liked the swell season version from here...
posted by kliuless at 5:22 PM on December 1, 2010


There are few songs that can melt my cynical heart, but KD Lang's version of Hallelujah is a fine fine thing indeed.
However, before hearing her sing it my exposure to it was almost entirely from Watchmen, where it was so cliched and awful I cringed and cringed.
posted by ch1x0r at 6:18 PM on December 1, 2010


I love the man's music so much- the words, the melodies, his voice even- but the arrangements are and always have been terrible! For decades!

It's the rock upon which his greatness is founded. Loving Leonard Cohen comes with a cost.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:27 PM on December 1, 2010


Most overrated song in history. Period.

So you've never heard Stairway to Heaven, Hotel California, most of the Beatles catalog... yadda yadda yadda.

One of my dearest musical wishes is that Rick Rubin (or, in a pinch, almost anybody else) would record him the way he deserves to be heard. Maybe I should start a petition somewhere.

Hey, how about Phil Spector!

Can we talk about the song's (terrifying and baffling) inclusion in Watchmen?

One of the worst-scored films in history. I burst out laughing at nearly every song in the first 30 minutes at which point I shut the film off, bored out of my mind.

(Sorry HuronBob.)
posted by dobbs at 6:56 PM on December 1, 2010


no offense, dobbs... If everyone liked the movies my kid is involved in, it wouldn't be as much fun to watch the ebb and flow of critics and fans! And, I agree, the Watchman score was a bit odd.. i thought they did a much better job with Dawn of the Dead (Down With The Sickness was a perfect fit!)

But, since someone begged...

...back in the day, when the kid was into punk rock, Johnny Rotten, the Misfits, and Dead Kennedys, I would, once in a while force him to sit through a marathon of listening to Dad's music... I jammed all the old folkies, the Mamas and Pappas, Elton John, Bob Dylan, and of course Leonard Cohen into his ears endlessly... My one hope was that, if I couldn't get him to cut the Mohawk, at least I could improve his taste in music, thus saving his soul.....

...most of it didn't take and he continued to listen to music by groups whose names didn't make any sense, much less the music..

But, a few years later, I found a couple of Leonard Cohen CDs at his apartment...Along with some Dylan..... He admitted that he loved the stuff.... and, had cut his Mohawk...

After school, he announced he was going out to LA to make movies, which, of course, meant he was going out to do drugs and ruin his life...

Eventually he started making movies, proving me wrong yet one more time.... And ended up being a critical factor in selecting songs for some movies...

Explaining the use of "The Man Comes Around" in Dawn of the Dead and Cohen's song in Watchmen....
posted by HuronBob at 7:59 PM on December 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


hap_hazard: "Sara C. - exactly! It's a problem! I love the man's music so much- the words, the melodies, his voice even- but the arrangements are and always have been terrible! For decades!"

It's OK to respect someone for the artistic choices they make, even those that are outside of your expectations.
posted by sneebler at 8:35 PM on December 1, 2010


I always felt that "Light as a Breeze" was the sister song to this... Billy Joel's version was so much better than Cohen's.
posted by HuronBob at 9:34 PM on December 1, 2010


spindle: " Carl Wilson puts it much better than I can, thusly:"

Thinking it was this Carl Wilson, I was very confused.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:04 AM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Cohen's "Ten New Songs" is well worth the purchase price, and I encourage everyone to buy it.

You might like this then, it's a spoken word version of A Thousand Kisses Deep. Where I found it I can't remember but it was around the time that album came out.
posted by Tenuki at 12:21 PM on December 2, 2010


Thanks!
posted by five fresh fish at 4:45 PM on December 2, 2010


« Older Weapons of the 21st Century?   |   15-Year-Old Who Held Classroom Hostage Dies Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments