Friday, December 26, 2008

Hallelujah,Not Really

Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah has been stuck in my head for a week or so now. I first ran into it early this month while exploring Il Divo videos. At that time I tried to find out more about the song and the lyrics but my Google-fu was weak. As I recall I did not know who had written it at the time.

A week or so ago a video of Leonard Cohen himself singing it showed up on a blog I read. The staging and presentation is funky to say the least, Hollywood Squares is so 70's, but this time I was able to find out much more, including a wide variety of cover versions of the song.

First is the scene from "Shrek" by which most people have likely heard it. Rufus Wainwright does a good job on the song.

I've found 2 versions online of Leonard Cohen singing his own song. The second version uses different verses from the first. I find both of them too dark and monotonic for my taste.

Many people seem to like this Jeff Buckley version. Personally I find it too minimalist. This song is about powerful emotions and Jeff's version is IMNSHO just too thin.

Speaking of thin, or should I say flat, Bon Jovi's rendition is just that, painfully so. Want more pain? Check out Sheryl Crow's version. Sadly Bob Dylan's cover is equally painful. He should be able to do this song well, but doesn't. And then there is John Cale; my ears, please, get a voice before singing. I could not make it all the way through any one of these.

Moving up the ladder we have Allison Crowe's version. Well done with a good voice and decent piano work, but still a bit bland. Damien Rice does a decent job of it too.

I have no clue who these guys are, but their almost a-cappella version in the round works: Even "froggy's" verse. The androgynous K.D. Lang begins to do this song justice, I just wish he/she would sing it as either a guy or a gal.

One of the better renditions is this one by Alexandra Burke from the 2008 X-Factor. Some people apparently consider it overdone, but the power of the song actually works with a larger arrangement and performance. And speaking of power and performance we get all the way back to Il Divo's version; still the best I think even if I cannot understand the words.

So why this song? The music is simple and evocative. The lyrics, with 2 or 3 quirks, are well crafted and fit the music well; they actually sound like they mean something. In today's music world that stands out.

What it is not is religious or praise to God. Even though it uses Biblical imagery and is based on a word that means "praise God" it is not about God. If you actually ready the lyrics you will find the song has little to do with God. In reality the words are very cryptic and don't seem to mean much at all as a whole. Leonard Cohen himself is reported to have said that the song is about "All hallelujahs have meaning": What the heck does that really mean?

I've come to the conclusion that Hallelujah is really a mood piece attempting to convey or invoke powerful emotion. In some ways it is the pop music equivalent to classical Impressionist music. One could ask "Which emotion?" As I see it that is really up to the performer. The lyrics don't consistently point to one. The use of "hallelujah" and Biblical imagery in the early verses could point to praise or worship, but the rest of the verses do not support this. Most singers use love or lust, but even there the words are quite ambiguous. In the end this song is a celebration of powerful emotion, regardless the emotion. Intellectually that's not very satisfying, but it does make for a powerful song.

p.s. I'm still looking for further adaptations of this song. I'm curious how it would sound as punk, metal, or hard rock. Please tell if you've come across such renditions.

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