This is the 46th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
In a writing session at the Royalton Hotel in New York, Leonard Cohen stripped down to his underwear and wrote 80 verses for one song. By the Cohen trimmed those verses to a more manageable number, the process of writing that particular song had spanned five years.
“To find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat,” Cohen later told Paul Zollo in an interview for SongTalk magazine.
That song became “Hallelujah,” which was released on Cohen’s seventh studio album, “Various Positions,” in 1984.
The song ultimately became his best known song. But at the time of its release, “Hallelujah” had little impact. Cohen’s 1984 version of “Hallelujah,” like the rest of “Various Positions,” was seen as a departure for him, as it included harmonies, background singers, and the then-modern sound of synthesizers.
Lyrically, the song drew heavily upon references to scripture, specifically the Old Testament. Addressing an unknown and undefined narrator, which wasn’t a departure for Cohen at all, he wove in references to King David, Bathsheba, Samson, and Delilah:
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 Hallelujah
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
On tours at the end of the ’80s and beginning of the ’90s, Cohen altered the song and changed some of the lyrics. He had at least 80 verses to choose from, after all. It was during one of those tours that former Velvet Underground member John Cale heard some of the alternate verses. Cale got Cohen to fax him the alternate lyrics – 15 pages worth – and then recorded his own version. “I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses,” Cale said. Cale’s stripped-down piano cover appeared on the 1991 tribute album, “I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen.”
Cale’s version was singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley’s introduction to “Hallelujah,” as he discovered the “I’m Your Fan” album while cat-sitting in Brooklyn in 1992. Buckley incorporated the song into his shows, and included that on his only album, “Grace,” in 1994. Buckley’s “Hallelujah” had more in common with Cale’s than with Cohen’s, in terms of lyrics, tone, and instrumentation.
Bono recorded a version of “Hallelujah” for the 1995 Leonard Cohen tribute album, “Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen.” When Cale and Buckley had stripped the synthesizer from Cohen’s 1984 version, they managed to make the song sound more personal and urgent. Bono’s keyboards, when combined with his monotone, spoken delivery, made for a cold and dispassionate cover that had about as much emotional resonance as a William Shatner spoken word track.
Buckley died in 1997. His unexpected death — he drowned in Memphis while swimming in Wolf River Harbor — brought enough attention that his previously ignored recordings were revisited. This not only meant that a new audience was discovering Buckley for the first time, but “Hallelujah” as well. And that’s when the song’s number of covers grew exponentially to the daunting number of remakes and recasts there are today.
Canadian singer Patricia O’Callaghan’s career has tied to Cohen’s career, as she made a name for herself recording opera- and and cabaret-influenced covers of his songs, including “Dance Me to the End of Love,” “Everybody Knows,” “I’m Your Man,” “If It Be Your Will,” “Joan of Arc, “The Gypsy’s Wife,” and “Take This Waltz.” Released on her second album, “Slow Fox,” O’Callaghan’s “Hallelujah” was her first Cohen cover. “Hallelujah” is already ripe for sounding like a hymn one would hear at a church service. There’s definitely a church vibe to O’Callaghan’s version, but it doesn’t have the overt, funereal sadness with which many other versions are saturated.
In 2000, three years after Buckley died, a compilation of live recordings was released. The album, “Mystery White Boy,” featured songs recorded while he was touring in support of his album “Grace.” The last track of the album is a mashup medley of “Hallelujah” and a cover of The Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over.” Buckley’s recorded version was haunting enough, but this version, released after his death, was that much more eerie. And when combined with The Smiths, well, it’s perhaps as depressing as it could get.
Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright recorded a version of “Hallelujah” that appeared on the soundtrack for “Shrek,” though it was Cale’s version that actually appeared in the film.
Wainwright’s piano cover was faithful to Cale’s, but it likely drew inspiration from Buckley’s cover. According to Wainwright, he and Buckley had a friendship that could have been deeper had it not been for Wainwright’s insecurities:
I was really jealous of him and resentful of his success for a long time when I started out. So I began a couple-year-long hatred of Jeff Buckley…. Years later, I actually met him in person and we hung out. This was after I had time to make my own record and have my own set of problems. I realized he was just a very, very delicate and sensitive and depressed guy who, if you blew on him, would crumble… I had a really lovely night hanging out with him. That night I realised just the futility of jealousy. And, of course, a month later he died. He would have been an amazing guy to sing with.
Wainwright wrote “Memphis Skyline” as a tribute to Buckley. The song, featured on the 2004 album “Want Two,” even referenced Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah”:
Never thought of Hades
Under the Mississippi
But still I’ve come to sing for him
So southern furies
Prepare to walk for my harp
I have strung, and I will leave with him
Relax the cogs of rhyme
Over the Memphis sky
Turn back the wheels of time
Under the Memphis skyline
always hated him for the way he looked
In the gaslight of the morning
Then came hallelujah sounding like Ophelia
for me in my room living
So kiss me, my darling stay with me till morning
Turn back and you will stay
Under the Memphis Skyline
Canadian singer and songwriter k.d. lang released “Hymns of the 49th Parallel” in 2004, featuring covers of some of her favorite songs by Canadian musicians. Her version of “Hallelujah,” built up over five minutes of heartbreaking vocals over soaring strings.
Since releasing that, lang has performed the song live several times, including a performance at the Canadian Juno Awards of 2005…
And at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. Her “Hallelujah (Vancouver Winter 2010 Version)” peaked at Number 2 on the Canadian Hot 100 and Number 61 on the US Billboard Hot 100.
In 2006, English singer-songwriter Imogen Heap recorded an a cappella version of “Hallelujah” for the last scene of the third season finale of “The O.C.” Thematically, this connected the episode to the previous season finales: the first season finale ended with Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” and the second season finale ended with Heap’s “Hide and Seek.” Of course, we’ve mentioned before how “The O.C.” was clever with its use of cover songs, including “If You Leave” and “Running Up That Hill.”
Willie Nelson’s 2006 album “Songbird” was not only produced by Ryan Adams, but featured Adams and his band The Cardinals on all 11 tracks. The background singers sounded reminiscent of the original 1984 version. The various sounds and effects — rain, thunder, harmonica, drums — were all fine ideas individually, but the final product might have sounded too textured, too layered. There’s a cinematic quality to the track, which might be part of its problem. It would have been a good instrumental track, but not a song where all the flourishes drown out one of the most iconic country singers.
“Hallelujah” has been a concert standard for Bon Jovi, such that the band included it on its 2008 “Live at Madison Square Garden” DVD. It was a simple performance, though Jon Bon Jovi sounded the way he has often sounded on ballads: snarling, almost twangy, and like someone impersonating Bret Michaels on Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”
Michael McDonald’s 2008 album “Soul Speak” included a version of “Hallelujah” that recast it a Gospel song you’d hear at Sunday brunch (or in an airport). Many of the lyrics were different from the more popular versions, as all of the Biblical references were gutted.
That same year, Alexandra Burke won the British reality TV show, “The X Factor.” Upon winning, she was tasked with singing and recording “Hallelujah.” She was less than enthusiastic, and called her mother for guidance:
I grew up listening to Motown and soul records, and I realized there were all these different versions of ‘Hallelujah,’ but there wasn’t a soulful one. … I called my mum back and told her I was going to Whitney-fy it, really make it soulful, and she burst into tears on the phone.
Burke‘s “Hallelujah” became the fastest-selling single by a female solo artist in the history of the UK singles chart. She had the Number 1 spot the week of Christmas, which is a big deal in the UK. A campaign to unseat her from the Number 1 position resulted in Buckley’s version rising to the Number 2 and Cohen’s version charting at Number 36.
In 2010, a version by Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris was released as part of “Hope for Haiti Now,” a live album by various artists to benefit Hope for Haiti Now’s response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The song’s tone was respectfully somber in respect to the event that led to the album in the first place.
That same year, Oprah Winfrey had Canadian singing group The Canadian Singers on her show to perform “Hallelujah.” Unbeknownst to the group’s members, Oprah had invited their idol — Celine Dion — to join them on the show mid-performance. It’s worth the watch just to see how startled they look when they see Dion walk out on stage.
Neil Diamond’s 2010 album, “Dreams,” featured covers of Gilbert O’Sullivan, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Bill Withers, and The Beatles, among others. Diamond’s “Hallelujah” was a straight-forward version, with a restrained delivery over simple guitar. It wasn’t awful, but there was nothing surprising about it, either.
British singer Susan Boyle, whose career began when she was a contestant on “Britain’s Got Talent,” covered “Hallelujah” for her Christmas-themed second album. When sung over soaring strings and packaged in an album that seemingly has the Star of Bethlehem on its cover, Boyle’s “Hallelujah” sounded like a song you might hear in a Christmas movie. A Christmas movie on Lifetime, that is, but a Christmas movie nonetheless.
American a cappella group Pentatonix also included “Hallelujah” on a Christmas album, 2016’s “A Pentatonix Christmas.” Of course, to simply refer to Pentatonix as an “a cappella group” is to deny the band’s prowess in understanding modern pop music. This track, like so many songs performed by Pentatonix, separates them from the quirky college a cappella groups and glee clubs that are ubiquitous on Spotify (and the rest of the Internet).
These versions, of course, are but a fraction of the “Hallelujah” covers out there. An exact number of “Hallelujah” covers is hard to place. SecondHandSongs has the number at 161, a number that seems conservative compared to the articles that have in the multiples of hundreds.
When Cohen passed away this last week at the age of 82, his legacy was framed, by and large, in terms of “Hallelujah.”
Sure, much was said about his poetry, his influence, and his status as not only one of Canada’s best singer-songwriters, but one of the best singer-songwriters in the history of recorded music. He left behind an impressive body of work that has been covered and reinterpreted by a host of artists.
But more than any other song, it was “Hallelujah” that has been covered — and mentioned — the most. Of all of Cohen’s signature songs — a group that includes “Dance Me to the End of Love,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and “Everybody Knows,” it was “Hallelujah” that has been given status as the signature song of all signature songs.
But it’s Cale and Buckley who had a bigger impact on how that song has been shaped, covered, and reinterpreted over the years. They are to “Hallelujah” what Sinead O’Connor was to “Nothing Compares 2 U” or what Aretha Franklin was to “Respect.” In those analogies, then, Cohen is the Prince or the Otis Redding: the talented songwriter who initially created the song, but not the one who would create what the song would mean to pop culture.
And yet when “Saturday Night Live” opened its episode Saturday night — the show’s first episode since last week’s election and the first episode since the announcement of Cohen’s death — the show chose to do so by having Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton sitting at a piano, playing “Hallelujah.”
Whether or not that was an appropriate move was up for debate on my social media feeds:
Of the many songs we’ve reviewed, “Hallelujah” is one of the more coverable songs, in part because there’s no one set of lyrics. One can, as Cale did, pick and choose which verses to use. That flexibility means the song’s meaning can change drastically from version to version. Or even verse to verse. In a 2004 article in Time, Buckley’s publisher spoke on the various TV shows to use the song, saying, “‘Hallelujah’ can be joyous or bittersweet, depending on what part of it you use.”
In other words, it’s so flexible and elastic, it can fit into any situation and mean whatever you want it (or need it) to mean. It can be a poignant song in “Shrek,” or a sad song in “The O.C.” Or a song that Buckley declared a celebration of the orgasm. Or, as we saw on “Saturday Night Live,” it can be used in an attempt to bring catharsis. It can be anything and everything, or nothing.
As such, we have heard a version of “Hallelujah” by almost everyone, a truth that wasn’t lost on Cohen. In 2010, he said, “I was just reading a review of a movie called ‘Watchmen’ that uses it and the reviewer said, ‘Can we please have a moratorium on “Hallelujah” in movies and television shows?’ And I kind of feel the same way.”