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know more about Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

A guide by Robert Moore (Chicago, IL USA)
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Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen is, by any measure, one of the foremost songwriters of his age, writing songs of lyrical brilliance that are surpassed only by Bob Dylan, and then only Bob Dylan at his best. Cohen's "Hallelujah" may end up being a victim of its own brilliance. For many years after it first appeared on Cohen's Various Positions it remained unknown except to Leonard Cohen fans. Gradually through the nineties it became better and better known and loved as others performed it. The problem for the song today, however, is that it is so popular it seems to pop up everywhere, causing some musical fans who might otherwise appreciate it for the masterpiece it is to hate it for its omnipresence.

The meaning of the song is left intentionally vague. King David in the Old Testament, both wrote Psalms (with the frequent repetition of the word “Hallelujah”) and engaged in an adulterous affair with Bathsheba, whom he saw bathing on her roof. But from there Cohen moves to a host of themes touching on spirituality, sex, sin, regret, repentance, and longing. Much of the song’s success unquestionably stems from this internal ambiguity, as it manages to be many things as one. Few if any songs pack quite as much emotional complexity into just a few verses.


John Cale

By far the most important of all versions of "Hallelujah" was the one performed by John Cale on the 1991 Leonard Cohen tribute album I'm Your Fan: The Songs Of Leonard Cohen. Cale both established the definitive version of the song and popularized it through the inclusion of his version in the film Shrek (Two-Disc Special Edition) (though interestingly his is not the version for the soundtrack album--more on that below. Although Cohen had regularly performed the song through the eighties, it had not really achieved definitive shape or great popularity. Cohen kept toying with the lyrics and would draw from as many as fifteen verses for his performances. No verses were sacred. For instance, in one live recording Cohen jettisons what is the first verse in all other versions.

John Cale relates that upon hearing Cohen perform the song live, he asked if he would send him the lyrics, and was later overwhelmed when Cohen sent him not merely the verses he sang that night, but all the verses he had written. Cale took them, and redacted the version that nearly all performers have followed since. In truth, while Leonard Cohen is the composer of the song, John Cale deserves credit for establishing the definitive version. Cale also greatly simplified the song by using only the piano as accompaniment. Cohen's original version was a lush affair, heavily synthesized with a chorus of female voices backing him up. Cale in every way established the way that "Hallelujah" would be performed in the future. The lyrics as established by Cale became:

Well I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
Well it goes like this:
The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah

Well 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 her kitchen chair
She broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah

Well baby I've been here before
I've seen this room and I've walked this floor,
You know, I used to live alone before I knew you
And I've seen your flag on the marble arch
But love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah

Well there was a time when you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show that to me do you
But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah

Maybe there isa God above
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
And it's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah

So influential has been the selection of verses by Cale that now even Leonard Cohen performs something very close to Cale's version. Check out his performance on the recent (and from beginning to end delightful) live performance recorded in London: Live In London.


Jeff Buckley

Although John Cale gave the song its definitive shape, it was Jeff Buckley who gave it its definitive performance. One mark of a great song is that almost any good singer can make it sound great, and over the years "Hallelujah" has been performed or recorded by an almost uncountable number of major and minor artists. Bob Dylan has done his own take on the song (though not, to my knowledge, in any recording), Bono, Damian Rice, and Shery Crow have performed it live, while a choral arrangement is quickly making the song a staple of high school and college choirs.

But as many great versions of this song as there are, Jeff Buckley's version predominates. Buckley possessed one of the truly astonishing voices of the rock age, rivaled in theatricality, dynamic range, and control by only a handful of singers, one of them interestingly being his perhaps even more gifted father Tim. Before his drowning death at age 30 he managed to complete only one album, Grace, an album that is far from perfect but bristling with talent and possibility. Though there are several great songs, easily the most unforgettable is "Hallelujah." He follows the Cale version, substituting guitar for piano. While Cohen's initial version was sung in the bass range and Cale's in a high baritone, Buckley kicks it up into the high tenor range. Buckley had a high tenor range that was matched in ease perhaps only by Roy Orbison, his father Tim, and Robert Plant, and he causes the lyrics of the song to soar as with no other performer. Though Buckley possessed a voice of great power, he constrains his singing throughout, always holding a great deal in reserve, lending the song a poetical expressiveness completely lacking in both Cohen and Cale's otherwise superb versions. If Cohen's original version often sounds like a world-weary lament, Buckley's sounds like a yearning prayer. One could hardly wish for more in a song. Evidence of Buckley's incredible gifts as a vocalist can be found near the end, where he slows down the tempo dramatically and then at this slowed-down tempo holds a remarkably high note for around five measures.


Rufus Wainwright

Although the John Cale performance of “Hallelujah” was used in the film Shrek (Two-Disc Special Edition), because of difficulties concerning Cale's contract with a competing record company, it was not possible to include it on the soundtrack album, Shrek - Music from the Original Motion Picture. Rufus Wainwright (son of Loudon) was therefore asked to record a version similar to the Cale, also using piano. This explains why one version is found in the film but another version on the soundtrack album.


Soundtracks

SHREK is hardly the only film or television show to use the song on its soundtrack. Just a partial list would include the soundtracks Basquiat: Original Soundtrack - Music From The Miramax Film (Cale), Scrubs (Cale), The L Word (Wainwright), HOUSE, and GREY’S ANATOMY. And as Marissa is dying in THE O.C., they play Imogene Heap’s a capella version (probably my least favorite of any version I know).

Products mentioned include:
Leonard Cohen
1.  Various Positions  by Leonard Cohen
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John Cale
2.  I'm Your Fan: The Songs Of Leonard Cohen  by Various Artists
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3.  Shrek (Two-Disc Special Edition) [Closed-captioned] [Dolby] [Dubbed] [Full Screen] [Widescreen] [NTSC]  DVD ~ Mike Myers
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4.  Live In London [Multiple Formats] [Color] [NTSC]  DVD ~ Leonard Cohen
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Jeff Buckley
5.  Grace  by Jeff Buckley
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Rufus Wainwright
6.  Shrek (Two-Disc Special Edition) [Closed-captioned] [Dolby] [Dubbed] [Full Screen] [Widescreen] [NTSC]  DVD ~ Mike Myers
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7.  Shrek - Music from the Original Motion Picture [Soundtrack]  by Harry Gregson-Williams
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Soundtracks
8.  Basquiat: Original Soundtrack - Music From The Miramax Film [Soundtrack]  by John Cale
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9.  Scrubs [Soundtrack]  by Various Artists
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10.  The L Word [Soundtrack]  by Damien Rice
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Customer Discussions about products in this guide
Discussion Replies Latest Post
Hallelujah-John Cale on movie-Wainwright on album 10 May 18, 2014
Is there supposed to be a booklet in this? 0 Jun 16, 2010
If It Be Your Will 0 Apr 6, 2009
Help, please! Jeff Buckley question 2 Mar 23, 2009
This has been bothering me for a while... 2 Jan 25, 2009
why is this kiddie junk listed under the punk rock listings? take this junk off the punk rock listings and give punk rock the respect it deserves 1 Dec 21, 2008
Scrubs/German dance song? 2 Sep 7, 2007
More Scrubs Music? 1 Aug 15, 2007
Led zepp's KASHMIR v/s Jeff Buckley's MOJO PIN 0 Jun 7, 2007
the version of hallelujah in the movie is jeff buckleys, not john cales. its off buckleys album "grace" 1 Jun 4, 2007
Get Get Get Over It 0 Jul 5, 2006
 
   

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Author

Robert Moore (Chicago, IL USA)
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
Qualifications: Leonard Cohen fan
Last updated: 4/22/09
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