Wednesday, 24 March 2010
Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' was rare for me in the sense that I came to love it through first loving a cover version. In fact, long before I heard the original, before I bought Various Positions album and posited it myself between The Clash and Coldplay, variously, I had heard perhaps a dozen different versions, none of which Cohen's. For this, the song is rare to me - I normally come to know an original before exploring the ranging covers available - but for most people this is perhaps the common way of discovering 'Hallelujah'.
Most everyone who knows 'Hallelujah' will have first heard a version other than Cohen's, whether it be Jeff Buckley's magnificent re-imagining, which inspired almost every cover that followed it, John Cale's reeling vision, which has featured on soundtracks varying from Scrubs to Shrek, or perhaps the more recent Alexandra Burke cover, which caused controversy amongst music fans when it was chosen as the winner's song in 2008's reality talent show X-Factor, and went on to become the fast selling single by a female in UK chart history. I've had in my time the opportunity to see the effervescent Rufus Wainwright cover the song, but also to see Cohen himself perform it - notably in a style more reminiscent of Cale - and I am unsure a song has ever existed that holds more possibilites for interpretation by other artists.
As a place to start We Write List's new ongoing feature about some of our favourite covers, there is no more logical a place to start than 'Hallelujah', a song best known by its covers. What is perhaps most remarkable about the song is its versatility - that so many artists find a creative outlet within the majestic boundaries of the lyrics, and yet manage to create such different songs from such a solid and set starting point.
Buckley, for instance, is at once soft and appalling saddening as he struggles through the song. It sounds exactly like that, though - a struggle. His voice crumbles under the crushing devastation he injects into the song, and for a short while it feels as if there is no hallelujah in 'Hallelujah'. All that while, though, the beauty is so present, and so intense, that such a hopeless vision of the song does not matter, not really, not for now.
Alexandra Burke injects more popular sensibilities into the song, a sellable factor that does not necessarily seem in-keeping at first with the true nature of the words, and the meaning. The production is slick and soulless, as is the instrumentation. Everything, musically, is set to sell, as if the recording studio had a button on its desk that read below 'Make Popular'. A choir kicks in, and at first adds nothing at all, but isn't that how choirs work when Simon Cowell is in charge. But then - then there is Burke's voice. Smooth and sultry, it perhaps lacks the broken nature inherent to most other visions of Cohen's lyrics - but it is bolder, stronger and in many ways more soulful than one has any right to expect from a chart-topping cover. By the end it is apparent that Burke's 'Hallelujah' is not one aquainted with the sadness of past versions, but rather is a swooping gospel ballad. In this sense, it is unlike anything released before by a reality star - a soulful song covered originally.
Though most recent covers find their inspiration in Buckley's, Jeff Buckley himself found inspiration in John Cale's 1991 version. There is, at times, a sense of irony in Cale's cover, particularly apparent in his delivery of the line 'but now you never show it to me, do ya?' Remarkable for being the first of the modern interpretations of the song, there are so many of these now that Cale's is lost in the shadows - particularly behind Buckley's behemoth. Nevertheless, there is something new to be found here - a subtly wry take on one of the most beautiful songs written.
Unsurprisingly, the 'Hallelujah' put forward for review by Imogen Heap is a much starker affair, a much more sparse song, than anything before it. Besides the lyrics and structure, there is little comparison to be made between Heap's and either Cohen's or Cale's. Breathy and desperately lonely, Heap's cover is brief but perhaps the most original version of the song since Cohen himself.
Similarly - or as similar as possible to Heap's quiet and empty version - Regina Spektor offers a gentle interpretation devoid of the heavier instrumentation of most recent covers. Reliant on subtle strings and the most basic of piano, the song is carried by the bittersweet cello and Spektor's own haunting voice.
There are dozens of entries to this catalogue, and to list them all in any form of detail would fill an afternoon both for you and I. It's easy to skip over so many of the inferior versions, more difficult to ignore those by Rufus Wainwright, k.d. Lang or Kathryn Williams. Only one version remains impossible to ignore, however.
Allison Crowe is perhaps renowned a little too much around these parts. She is considered consistently magnificent - a burden on talent nobody should be given. Nevertheless, her cover of 'Hallelujah' is simply stunning, and remains one of my favourite covers of all time. Taking, as ever, inspiration from Cale's style of the song, Crowe throws in more soul and sadness than any one person should be capable of. In Crowe's hands, the song has as much majesty as Cohen could ever have conveyed, as much sadness as the Buckley version and as beautiful instrumentation - though completely original, and even more sparsely terrific - as Spektor or Wainwright or anyone else you may care to mention. Simply, a song so beautiful has never been sung so beautifully.
Allison Crowe - 'Hallelujah'