Aaron Wherry, The National Post
Tuesday, September 21, 2004
There is something quintessentially Canadian
about the "songwriter's songwriter"-not simply because of
our home and native land's long history with such artists (from Joni
Mitchell to Ron Sexsmith), but because of the title's implications
of both elitism and
Leonard Cohen might be the epitome of this. For all the ink that will be spilled this week on the occasion of his 70th birthday, popular appeal has never been his. But if there is a back door to the Society of Leonard Cohen Devotees, it is through the insular little idea of the songwriter's songwriter. So revered by his own kind-and those who aspire to be of his kind-Cohen has had his compositions covered by a wide swath of artists, offering both a testament to his talents and a thousand points of entry for those unfamiliar with his back catalogue.
Hallelujah, though not his most reworked piece, might be the best example of this. On its own, it is trademark Cohen-full of sex, despair, theology, faith and humour. Drawn from a Biblical passage about King David, it both fulfills his reputation as a troubled soul and dispels it with what passes for a happy ending.
Recorded originally for his album Various Positions in 1984, it was later rewritten as a slightly more secular song (see Cohen Live, 1994). In either case, even in Cohen's growl, it is very much a hymn-something the late Jeff Buckley seized upon in recording the cover that appears on his landmark Grace (1994), a remarkable (in hindsight, haunting) vocal performance that would define him when he met an early death shortly thereafter.
Bob Dylan, with a lumbering electric guitar, has performed the song in concert, turning Cohen's ode into a garbled tale from the saddest, smartest drunk. Taking on Hallelujah for 1995's Cohen Tribute album, Tower of Song, U2's Bono stripped it down to a sparse, murky bit of ambient electronica for the dankest of dance clubs.
In Canada, both Patricia O'Callaghan and
Allison Crowe have lent a feminine touch to the tale of male lust,
but it would be John Cale (formerly of the Velvet Underground) who,
on another tribute album, I'm Your Fan (1991), would record maybe
the most widely heard of Hallelujah renditions-his somewhat maudlin
version serenading a pivotal scene in the animated movie Shrek
(though for the official soundtrack, a slightly bouncier rendition
recorded by Rufus Wainwright was used).
Further info at www.leonardcohenfiles.com. More covers to be presented tonight at Toronto's Reservoir Lounge (52 Wellington St. E.) with O'Callaghan, Lily Frost, Maestro Fresh Wes, Reid Jamison, Robbie Roth and Theresa Tova scheduled to perform. For more information call James Greenspan at 416-530-1999.al)